On Aug. 8, the towns of Lahaina and Kula in West Maui, Hawaii bore witness to unprecedented wildfires that engulfed thousands of homes, killed droves of people, and reduced cherished landmarks to ashes. The fires stand as the most fatal in modern U.S. history.
Now, as rescue crews trudge through the devastation, the number of fatalities continues to rise. At press time, the official death toll stands at at least 110, while the exact number of unaccounted for individuals remains unclear.
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“They will find 10 to 20 people per day probably, until they finish,” said Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, adding that it’s currently “impossible” to estimate what the final death count will be. “[Rescue efforts] are probably going to take 10 days.”
Though the exact cause of the blaze is unknown, officials attribute weather conditions that caused multiple wildfires to ignite simultaneously. Coupled with “favorable land and atmospheric conditions,” the fires fed off each other to create powerful wind gusts and angry flames that wiped out everything in their paths.
“We don’t know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation — so that’s dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry,” Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, said during a briefing on Aug. 9.
Lahaina: The epicenter of destruction
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Known as a historical town and popular tourist destination, Lahaina bore the brunt of the fires with approximately 2,200 structures undergoing damage or total destruction. A staggering 86 percent of these were residential properties, said Gov. Green.
Lahaina’s “older neighborhood,” a primary economic magnet, lies in ruins. The complete extent of the devastation in Lahaina is shocking, said Green. Not just man-made structures, but even historical and cultural sites have fallen victim to the flames.
“This is the largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced. Recovery will require an incredible amount of time,” Gov. Green said during a press briefing on Aug. 13.
The fires in Lahaina burned at an alarming pace that consumed a mile of land per minute while being propelled by high wind speeds ranging from 60 to 81 mph. The conditions were exacerbated by Hurricane Dora, which, although positioned hundreds of miles south of Hawaii, stoked the raging fires.
Maui in mourning as search efforts continue
The exact count of missing individuals is still unclear, said Maui Police Chief John Pelletier. With just three percent of the burned region having been scoured with cadaver dogs by Aug. 12, the urgency to identify the deceased is palpable. Pelletier added that in order to streamline search and identity efforts, the need for DNA provision by kin is of prime importance.
“Given the intensity of the blaze, which was fierce enough to melt metal, rapid DNA testing becomes imperative for identification,” said Pelletier.
However, even in these dire circumstances, stories of reunion have emerged — offering a rare glimmer of hope for many residents in Lahaina. Brittany Talley’s family, after three agonizing days without news, received a text from her grandfather, Timm “TK” Williams Sr., assuring them of his safety.
Sadly, not all were fortunate. Maui firefighter Tasha Pagdilao lost her uncle to the inferno, describing her firefighting experience as surreal, reminiscent of an “apocalypse.”
Videos shared on social media showed dozens of people seeking refuge from the flames by rushing into the ocean, clinging to floating debris, and watching in despair as their homes were consumed by fire.
Despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refraining from estimating the monetary loss at this early stage, Gov. Green approximated the damage to hover around $6 billion.
Though the three most extensive fires have been “considerably curbed” by firefighters, parts of Lahaina, spanning 2,170 acres, were still under fire, Maui County Fire Chief, Brand Ventura, said during a press conference on Aug. 13. However, “85 percent of the region” has been contained, added Ventura.
U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell provided insight into the fire’s behavior, emphasizing its rapid, ground-level progression, which outstripped early firefighting search and rescue efforts. However, he praised the officers’ bravery and heroism amid the widespread devastation.
“The firefighters in Maui County are to be commended for their heroic firefighting efforts,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell on Aug. 14. “As the fire quickly out-paced suppression efforts, they kept fighting even as many of them lost their homes. As I talk with them during our station visits, they are extremely passionate about remaining on duty, while being encouraged to take appropriate rest for their own physical and mental well-being.”
Accountability and challenges
But as casualties continue to mount, officials now face scrutiny over their preparedness for a disaster of this scale.
Though the official cause of the fires remains undetermined, allegations of negligence from the state’s main electricity provider, Hawaii Electric Industries, have surfaced. The accusations say the company did not have proper infrastructure in place to prevent power lines from toppling in strong wind gusts, potentially worsening the impact and devastation of the fires. The company is now embroiled in at least two lawsuits to determine whether the destruction “could have been avoided” if the company had shut down its power lines before high winds hit.
The state’s emergency management agency is also in hot water after downplaying the threat posed by wildfires to human life in Hawaii. The assessment, which was released last year, appeared to contradict the agency’s own admission of having “insufficient resources” in place to combat fires of this magnitude.
In another revelation, as the fires advanced into neighborhoods at a rapid pace, the world’s largest siren system stayed muted. Residents were mainly reliant on mobile communications and broadcasters during a period where power and cellular service were largely disrupted.
A humanitarian crisis
Antonio Dominguez, who works as a wedding videographer on the big island of Kona, located about 97 miles from Lahaina, shared with Vision Times that the devastation has been felt far and wide. “We are trying to gather resources,” said Dominguez, adding, “Anything and everything from bottled water, non-perishable goods, and baby formula, to batteries and cooking equipment.”
“Everything we can get our hands on to help our ohana (meaning ‘family’ in Hawaiian) affected by these horrible fires,” said Dominguez. “This is a humanitarian crisis.”
The resulting upheaval has left thousands homeless, with the region facing a long and arduous road to recovery, said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. As of Aug. 11, Maui County officials recorded 1,418 evacuees taking refuge in emergency shelters across Lahaina.