A raging wildfire that swept through a picturesque town on the Hawaiian island of Maui this week has killed at least 93 people, authorities said, making it the deadliest wildfire in the United States in the past century.
The death toll on Saturday was initially announced as 89. Maui County later raised the confirmed death toll to 93, but hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.
Federal emergency workers with axes and cadaver dogs picked through the aftermath of the blaze, marking the ruins of homes with a bright orange X for an initial search and HR when they found human remains.
The state's Governor Josh Green had earlier warned that more bodies would be found as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street.
"It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced. ... We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said two of the victims have been identified so far, adding that identifying the dead is extremely challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart.”
“When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify them," he said.
Pelletier added that crews with cadaver dogs have covered just three percent of the search area.
“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles (approximately 13 square kilometres) and it is full of our loved ones,” he said, noting that “none of us really know the size of it yet.”
Thousands in need of shelter
At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Governor Green said, of which 86 percent were residential.
Damage was estimated at close to $6 billion across the island, he said, adding that it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.
At least two other fires have been burning in Maui, with no fatalities reported thus far: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry.
A fourth broke out Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal community in West Maui north of Lahaina, but crews were able to extinguish it, authorities said.
Green said the Upcountry fire had affected 544 structures, of which 96 percent were residential.
Emergency managers in Maui were searching for places to house people displaced from their homes.
As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early on Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.