Crews in west Maui are continuing the heart-wrenching work of sifting through the ashes of what used to be homes and beloved landmarks wiped out by the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years – and the death toll has been rising.
There have been 96 confirmed deaths from the fire, officials said in an update Sunday night local time, an increase from the previous count of 93 fatalities. And there’s still people unaccounted for as search teams with cadaver dogs look for remains in decimated neighborhoods.
Live Updates: Maui wildfires leave a trail of death and destruction
The devastation is what’s left behind after multiple, simultaneous wildfires began spreading erratically Tuesday, suddenly jumping onto and engulfing homes, forcing harrowing escapes and displacing thousands.
“This is the largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Saturday night news conference. “It’s going to also be a natural disaster that’s going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from.”
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier on Saturday said it was premature to assign even an approximate dollar amount to the damage done on Maui, the governor estimated that “the losses approach $6 billion.”
Even as authorities take stock of the losses and work gets underway to identify lost loved ones, the firefight hasn’t stopped.
While firefighters have made progress against the three largest wildfires, the deadly fire in hard-hit Lahaina is still not fully under control, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said Saturday.
Here’s what we know about the fires, their toll on the island and the mountain of work up ahead:
The most destructive and deadly of the fires, the Lahaina wildfire, traveled at an extraordinary speed, the governor said in a video update Sunday afternoon.
“When the winds rose up – winds gusting as high as 81 miles per hour – fires spread rapidly,” Green said. “We believe between 60 miles per hour and 81 miles per hour across that part of the island, and that meant that fire traveled one mile every minute.”
The weather service had issued “a red flag warning” on Monday as dry lands, gusty winds and low humidities combined to set the stage for critical fire weather conditions.
By Tuesday afternoon, winds associated with powerful Hurricane Dora passing hundreds of miles south of Hawaii were fanning the flames of already burning wildfires and multiple evacuations were announced for the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires.
The flames jumped across highways and suddenly showed up in people’s yards and homes.
“It was a very fast-moving fire,” US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said at the Saturday news conference.
The fire was moving “low to the ground and structure to structure – incredibly fast that outpaced anything the firefighters could have done in the early hours,” she added.
As of 3 p.m. local time Sunday, the Lahaina fire stretching across 2,170 acres was 85% contained. Meanwhile, the Upcountry or Kula fire was 60% contained and was estimated to cover 678 acres.
The Maui fires destroyed their homes. This woman took in 5 families under one roof
Around 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged because of the fires in western Maui, where the hard-hit historic town of Lahaina is located, according to Green. About 86% of the structures were residential, he added.
The “older neighborhood” of Lahaina, an economic hub in western Maui that drew millions of tourists each year, is destroyed, Maui County Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr. has previously said.
Historical and cultural sites in Lahaina have also been engulfed by the fires, a CNN analysis of new Maxar Technologies satellite imagery shows.
Fires leveled entire neighborhoods, burning everything in their paths.
“It is going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina. When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you,” Green said last week.
The devastation has displaced thousands of people, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell estimated. As of Friday night, a total of 1,418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters, according to Maui County officials.
The governor said Sunday that work is being ramped up to get displaced Lahaina residents into temporary homes, with more than 500 hotel rooms already obtained with government subsidies.
“Airbnb is going to offer us hundreds of typically short-term rentals in a longer term capacity, so we can put people into a place for months,” Green said.
While most Maui schools will reopen this week, with students returning on Wednesday, schools in hard hit West Maui remain closed – including King Kamehameha III Elementary, which was damaged beyond repair, according to Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
“Our hearts are heavy, and the road to recovery will be long, but I have faith in our collective strength to support one another and our students. Together, we will heal, we will rebuild, and Lāhainā and Maui will thrive once more,” Hayashi continued.
Of the dozens found dead across the burn area, only two people had been identified as of Saturday, according to Maui County.
Identifying everyone won’t be an easy task, authorities say.
“The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify everyone,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.
He urged those with missing family members to contact authorities to coordinate a DNA test to assist in the identification process, saying, “we need to identify your loved ones.”
As the death toll climbed, the Maui wildfires became the deadliest in the US in more than a century, surpassing the California’s 2018 Camp Fire, according to research from the National Fire Protection Association.
As searches of the burned ruins continue, officials warn they do not know exactly how many people are still missing in the torched areas.
As of Saturday night, just 3% of the fire zone had been searched with cadaver dogs, Pelletier said, adding, “None of us really know the size of it yet.”
While some have turned up in shelters, there are still families desperately searching for loved ones.
“There are still people who are unaccounted for. They need to be identified,” US Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said. “There is a call for people to come in to provide DNA.”
There have been some stories of hope: A grandfather finally reached his family three days after they last heard from him.
Brittany Talley and her family last heard from her grandfather, Timm “TK” Williams Sr., on Wednesday when the 66-year-old man sent a photo of a raging wildfire on Maui as he evacuated the area of Kaanapali.
On Saturday, Williams was able to get enough signal on his cell phone to text Talley’s mother, telling them he was safe, Talley told CNN.
“Thousands of people are experiencing the worst moment of their lives right now, so receiving a text was a small gesture, but a huge blessing for my entire family,” Talley said.
As the deadly fires spread rapidly into neighborhoods, the largest siren system in the world was silent.
Emergency communications with residents were largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already cut.
“There were multiple fires at the same time, and the circumstance was greatly complicated also by the heat and the speed with which the fire spread, destroying a great deal of infrastructure,” Green said Saturday when asked about why sirens weren’t heard.
“Over time, we’ll be able to figure out if we could have better protected people. That’s why we’re reviewing everything,” he added.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is set to lead a comprehensive review of officials’ response to the catastrophic wildfires, her office announced Friday.
The review will encompass “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires,” the attorney general’s office said.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s main electric provider is already facing a lawsuit claiming that electrified power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire.
“By failing to shut off the power during these dangerous fire conditions, Defendants caused loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai’i’s historic and cultural sites,” says the complaint filed Saturday against Hawaiian Electric Industries and three subsidiaries, including the power utility that services Maui.
“These power lines foreseeably ignited the fastmoving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which destroyed homes, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites,” the lawsuit states.
Maui Mayor Bissen acknowledged Thursday that power lines that were “still energized” had fallen on the roads, but the new lawsuit does not state exactly how the power lines allegedly caused the wildfire. An official cause of the wildfire has not yet been determined.
In a statement to CNN on Sunday, Hawaiian Electric vice president Jim Kelly said, “As has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation.”
“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review,” Kelly told CNN in an email.