The death toll from the Maui wildfires climbed to at least 89 Saturday as authorities work to identify the victims and sift through the burned communities of western Maui.
The fire is now the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years, according to research from the National Fire Protection Association.
“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.”
Whipped by winds from Hurricane Dora hundreds of miles offshore, fast-moving wildfires wiped out entire neighborhoods, burned historic landmarks to the ground and displaced thousands. As searches of the burned ruins continue, officials warn they do not know exactly how many people are still missing in the torched areas.
Only about 3% of the fire zone has been searched with cadaver dogs, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, and authorities expect the already staggering death toll to rise.
“None of us really know the size of it yet,” Pelletier said at Saturday night’s news conference.
Only two of the 89 people whose remains have been found were identified Saturday, Pelletier said. Those with missing family members were urged to coordinate with authorities to do a DNA test.
“We need to find your loved ones,” Pelletier said. “The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify every one of these 89.”
Meanwhile, firefighters who continue to battle the flames – practically nonstop in some instances – have made some progress in containing the blazes. Of the three largest wildfires that crews have been combating, the deadly fire in hard-hit Lahaina has not grown, but is still not fully under control, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said.
The Pulehu fire – located farther east in Kihei – was 80% contained Friday, another sign of improvement from 70% on Thursday, officials noted. A third inferno in the hills of Maui’s central Upcountry was 50% contained on Friday, officials said.
As firefighting efforts continue, the state is surveying the immense destruction in once vibrant, beloved communities.
Around 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged by the fires in West Maui, about 86% of them residential, Green said Saturday.
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.”
“The devastation is so complete, that you see metals twisted in ways that you can’t imagine,” Green said. “And you see nothing from organic structures left whatsoever.”
“We’ve gone through tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but this event was much more catastrophic than any of those here,” Green said.
Here’s the latest as of Saturday evening:
- Police are restricting access into West Maui: The one highway into the hard-hit Lahaina area remains highly restricted. Residents slept in a mile-long line of cars overnight Saturday, hoping to enter.
- Thousands displaced: The fires have displaced thousands of people, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN on Thursday. A total of 1,418 people are at emergency evacuation shelters, according to Maui County officials.
- Hotel rooms for evacuees: Around 1,000 hotel rooms were secured for evacuees and first responders, Green said, but it’s a challenge to get people into hotel rooms that have enough electricity. Long term housing solutions were also being sought.
- Cellphone services coming back: While the fires initially knocked down communications and made it hard for residents to call 911 or update loved ones, county officials said Friday that cellphone services are becoming available. People are still advised to limit calls.
- Maui’s warning sirens were not activated: State records show Maui’s warning sirens were not activated, and the emergency communications with residents was largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already cut.
- Disaster response under review: Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez will lead a comprehensive review of officials’ response to the catastrophic wildfires, her office said Friday. “My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said in a statement.