Sunday, August 13, 2023
At least 93 people have lost their lives so far with the death toll continuing to go upward after an apocalyptic fire started in Hawaii's Lahaina, with officials terming it one of the deadliest wildfires in the United States that burnt hundreds of structures to ashes.
According to official estimates, more than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed leaving thousands without homes as the deadly blaze spread through Lahaina.
In its Saturday update, the County of Maui said that the of confirmed fatalities had increased to 93, up from 89.
Officials said that it has inflicted $5.5 billion in losses.
Authorities in Hawaii have initiated an investigation into the handling of the fire, as residents reported to have said that there was no prior warning about the fatal wildfire.
Over 12,000 people live in Lahaina. It is also the erstwhile home to Hawaii's royal family. The wildfire burnt everything in the country leaving its charming hotels and restaurants into mere ashes.
A banyan tree at the centre of the community for 150 years has been scarred by the flames but still stands upright, its branches denuded and its sooty trunk transformed into an awkward skeleton.
Governor Josh Green had warned that the official death toll was bound to grow, adding that "it's going to continue to rise. We want to brace people for that."
The new toll makes the blaze the deadliest in the US since 1918, when 453 people died in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the non-profit research group the National Fire Protection Association.
The death toll surpassed 2018's Camp Fire in California, which virtually wiped the small town of Paradise off the map and killed 86 people.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said only a small fraction of the disaster zone has been searched and only two victims have been identified because of how badly they were burned.
"The remains we're finding are from a fire that melted metal," he said, adding that "we have to do rapid DNA to identify every one of these.
"When we pick up the remains... they fall apart."
Firefighters were battling at least one other blaze in Maui Saturday night, in the inland mountainous Upcountry.
The Pulehu/Kihei fire in the south was declared 100% contained on Saturday night.
Hawaii congresswoman Jill Tokuda told CNN that officials had been taken by surprise by the tragedy.
"We underestimated the lethality, the quickness of fire," she said.
Governor Green defended the immediate response, saying the situation had been complicated by the presence of multiple fires and by the strength of the winds.
"Having seen that storm, we have doubts that much could have been done with a fiery fast-moving fire like that," he said.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would examine "critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawaii islands this week."
Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis, preventing many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their cell phones — something Tokuda said officials should have prepared for.
No emergency sirens were sounded, and many Lahaina residents have spoken of learning about the blaze because of neighbours running down the street.
"We have got to make sure that we do better," Tokuda added.
In its emergency management plan last year, the State of Hawaii described the risk wildfires posed to people as being "low".
Maui police said members of the public would not be allowed into Lahaina — even some of those who could prove they lived there.
"If your home or former home is in the affected area, you will not be allowed to [enter] until the affected area has been declared safe," a press release said.
"Anyone entering the disaster area... is subject to a misdemeanour crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine."
Some residents waited at a roadblock for hours hoping to be allowed in to comb through the ashes or look for missing pets or loved ones.
"How are people supposed to get there? The damn roads are closed," said Lahaina resident Daniel Rice.
"Get some authority out there. Figure it out. This is nonsense."