The death toll from fast-moving wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui island rose Thursday to at least 55 people, officials said. One blaze, which nearly destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, was said to be 80% contained earlier in the day.
Officials warned the death toll will likely continue to go up, with multiple fires on the island still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.
“What we saw is likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in a news conference Thursday afternoon, adding that “hundreds of homes” have been destroyed.
Officials were unable to provide an estimate on the number of people missing.
“Honestly, we don’t know,” Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters.
Pelletier pleaded for patience for Lahaina residents who wanted to return home, indicating it could be weeks before neighborhoods are reopened.
“But we have to respect the fact that we’ve got loved ones in that earth, and we’ve got to do the right thing to get them out the right way,” he said.
Search and rescue teams with cadaver dogs were being brought in from California and Washington to assist in the search for human remains, FEMA regional administrator Robert Fenton disclosed.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said large swaths of Lahaina had been completely destroyed, with much of the city without water or power.
“Until you see the devastation, it’s difficult to describe,” he said. “But there’s lots of people that will need a lot of help.”
Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said all four wildfires that broke on Maui Tuesday were still burning.
“None of the fires are 100% contained right now,” Ventura said. “Additionally, we have many small fires in between these fires.”
Ventura described the burn areas as “very, very hazardous.”
“Things are falling every minute around us,” he said. “There have been people hurt by falling telephone poles and such.”
Bissen previously said that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara with the Hawaii State Department of Defense said that plans were being made to activate both active duty and National Guard soldiers for response and recovery efforts.
Police have urged people to stay away from Lahaina “due to biohazard and safety concerns” and said arrangements would be made to let residents back into the area at a later date.
Evacuations were continuing Thursday with officials providing buses to take people from the disaster area on the western part of the island to a shelter or Maui’s Kahului Airport. Maui officials said 1,400 people stayed at the airport overnight Wednesday while waiting for flights off the island.
Thousands to require emergency housing
President Biden approved on Thursday approved a federal disaster declaration for Maui.
“The federal government will be supporting our full recovery,” Green said Thursday, explaining that emergency housing will need to be provided for “thousands of people.”
The move makes federal funding available to people on the island affected by the fires.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers — every asset we have will be available to them,” Mr. Biden said during an event in Salt Lake City marking the first anniversary of a veterans benefits law. “They’ve seen their homes, their businesses destroyed, and some have lost loved ones, and it’s not over yet.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Hawaii on Friday to meet with state and local officials about ongoing recovery efforts, the agency announced Thursday evening.
The Coast Guard said Thursday it had rescued 17 people from the water and located 40 survivors ashore. The Coast Guard currently has no reports of missing persons in the water.
Thirty guardsmen are assisting Maui police with traffic control, and 16 roads are still closed on Maui, Jeff Hickman, public affairs director for the state’s Department of Defense, said Thursday afternoon.
About 10,700 customers in West Maui were without power as of Thursday evening, as access continues to be limited due to safety concerns, Hawaiian Electric said. “We recognize the gravity and hardship of having prolonged outages during these challenging times and we are starting damage assessments to determine restorations in West Maui areas,” utility spokesperson Shayna Decker said in a statement.
Green, who was traveling out-of-state when the fires broke out, but had returned Thursday to survey the damage, issued an emergency proclamation that allows out-of-state doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to deliver health care services on the Island of Maui for an emergency period.
The four wildfires that erupted Tuesday were initially spread by winds from Hurricane Dora as it passed far to the south.
Lahaina residents describe racing to escape fire
Terrifying images out of a Maui neighborhood showed home after home swallowed by fast-moving flames Tuesday night as residents scrambled to escape.
The wildfires took Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood.
Amid the chaos, Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News on Thursday that there wasn’t any warning about the fire and they left with only what they were wearing.
“The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbor’s yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out,” Kaleiopu said.
He and a group of about a dozen family members are staying with a cousin in a safer part of the island, and he’s seen in aerial footage that there’s nothing for him to go back to.
“All of my neighborhood is completely destroyed, my grandparents’ house completely destroyed, my mother’s house, my brother’s house,” Kaleiopu said. “Everyone that I know, I’ve seen their houses just burned down to piles of ash. There’s nothing recognizable in the rubble, and I wouldn’t know what I was looking at if I were to make it back home, or at least to where home used to be.”