Maui wildfire death toll rises as search for victims gears up

Thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated from the western side of Maui. (Photo/Reuters)

Search teams on Maui will comb through the charred ruins of Lahaina looking for more victims of a wildfire that ripped through the Kingdom of Hawaii's onetime capital, with officials expecting the death toll of 55 to rise.

Cadaver dogs from California and Washington state will assist in the grim task of recovering human remains from the ruins on Friday as firefighters work to extinguish hot spots and smaller fires. The fire was 80 percent contained as of Thursday evening, officials said.

"Understand this: Lahaina Town is hallowed, sacred ground right now," Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, referring to human remains that have yet to be recovered. "We have to get them out."

The inferno, which erupted on Tuesday, reduced the picturesque resort town to piles of smoldering debris as it torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless in what was the worst natural disaster in the US state's history.

In addition to searching for those still missing, officials were drafting a plan to put the newly homeless up in hotels and tourist rental properties.

The island currently has four shelters in operation for the displaced.

"Like a war was going on"

Authorities also were dealing with a widespread power and water issues across the community. As of Friday morning, some 11,000 homes and businesses remained without power, according to

Witnesses to the conflagration that hit Lahaina spoke of their terror as the blaze consumed a town in what seemed to be minutes to many of them. Some escaped the racing flames by jumping into the Pacific Ocean.

Thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated from the western side of Maui, which has a year-round population of about 166,000, with some taking shelter on the island or on the neighboring island of Oahu. Tourists camped out in the Kahului Airport, waiting for flights back home.

Many more people suffered burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

"It was so hot all around me, I felt like my shirt was about to catch on fire," Nicoangelo Knickerbocker, a 21-year-old resident of Lahaina, said from one of the four emergency shelters opened on the island.

Knickerbocker heard cars and a gas station explode, and soon after fled the town with his father, bringing with them only the clothes they were wearing and the family dog.

"It sounded like a war was going on," he said.

All of three fires still burning

Governor Josh Green said the scope of the disaster would surpass that of 1960, one year after Hawaii became a US state, when a tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"It's going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina," Green said at a news conference.

The Lahaina fire was one of three major wildfires on Maui, all of them still burning, that were fueled by dry conditions, a buildup of fuel and 100 km per hour gusts of wind.

Winds were forecast to ease to 9.7 kph on Friday as firefighters were to work to secure the perimeter of the wildland areas that burned Maui County.

As of Thursday evening, the Pulehu fire, burning to the east, was 70 percent contained. There was no estimate for the Upcountry fire in the centre of the eastern mass of the island, Maui County said.


Source: TRT