Death toll from Hawaii wildfires will rise as search teams comb Lahaina wreckage, governor says

Days after a wildfire destroyed most of Lahaina, crews are going house to house in search of survivors or human remains. 

Robert Gauthier | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The death toll from catastrophic wildfires in Hawaii is expected to rise significantly in the coming days as search teams make their way through the wreckage in the devastated town of Lahaina. 

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said search teams will likely find 10 to 20 bodies daily in an operation that is expected to last 10 days. Some 1,300 people are still missing, Green said. 

“There are more fatalities that will come,” Green told CBS in an interview that aired Monday. “The fire was so hot that what we find is the tragic finding that you would imagine. It’s hard to recognize anybody, but they’re able to determine if someone did perish.”

The wildfires have left at least 96 dead so far and caused $5.6 billion in damage in the worst natural disaster in state history and the deadliest blaze in the U.S. in more than a century.

Maui chief of police John Pelletier speaks about the Maui fire during a media conference in Kahului on Maui island, Hawaii, U.S., August 12, 2023. 

Mike Blake | Reuters

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said on Saturday that search dogs have only gone through 3% of the disaster area in the historic town of Lahaina so far.

Pelletier described the painstaking process of using rapid DNA tests to identify the delicate remains of those who perished in a blaze so hot that it melted metal. He called on families who have missing loved ones to take a DNA test so authorities can identify those who have died.

Pelletier said nobody knows the magnitude of the loss of life yet. The police chief said he understands the public wants information quickly, but authorities are focused on conducting the search correctly.

“There’s a word here called Pono, it means righteous — doing what’s right,” Pelletier said. “We’re going to do this, but we’re going to do it Pono because we’re going to do it the right way. We’re doing to do it with respect, we’re going to do it with Aloha, we’re going to do it with dignity.”

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Green said in a video statement on Sunday that 2,700 buildings were destroyed in Lahaina with an estimated value of $5.6 billion. He describe the blaze as a “fire hurricane” that moved a mile a minute with temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Green attributed the conditions that fanned the blaze to global warming. Hawaii was suffering from drought conditions in the run-up to the fire and was also hit with strong winds due in part to Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the islands.

Cars drive away from Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town several days ago, Maui, Hawaii, Aug. 10, 2023.

Marco Garcia | Reuters

Green said the blaze on Maui began late in the evening on Tuesday, with several fires occurring at the same time. One fire was deemed extinguished but it must not have been completely out, the governor said. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds with gusts up to 81 miles per hour then spread the blaze rapidly.

“That’s what a fire hurricane is going to look [like] in the era of global warming,” Green told MSNBC in an interview Sunday. “And so we have to all do right now what we can to stop global warming and reverse it.”

“I want to warn the entire planet about this, all of America and all of the world,” Green said.

The Lahaina fire is 85% contained, the Upcountry fire is 60% contained and the Pulehu/Kihei fire is 100% contained, according to Maui County officials. The blaze in Maui is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since the 1918 Cloquet Fire in Minnesota that killed hundreds of people.

The water in Lahaina and many parts of Upper Kula is not safe to drink, authorities said. Bottled water should be used for all drinking, brushing teeth, ice making and food preparation.

A burnt cart is seen at the Ho’Onanea condominium complex, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 10, 2023. 

Staff | Reuters

Authorities in Hawaii have faced criticism for not moving quickly enough to alert people about the catastrophic blaze. The Hawaii Emergency Services Administration confirmed on Friday that warning sirens were not activated during the blaze. Three other alert systems were activated, a spokesperson said, including mobile devices, radio and television, and Maui County’s opt-in alert system.

Green said he has ordered a comprehensive review led by the state attorney general of the decisions made in response to the wildfires. The governor said there was massive destruction of telecommunications equipment during the disaster.

“We’ll know soon whether or not they did enough to get those sirens going,” Green told MSNBC. “But there was massive destruction of telecommunications. Otherwise, we ourselves would have communicated with each other like we always do within seconds on our cell phones,” he said.

Davilynn Severson and Hano Ganer look for belongings through the ashes of their family‘s home in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 11, 2023. 

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden declare a major disaster in Hawaii last week on Thursday. There are currently more than 400 personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the ground in Hawaii, Green said.

The governor said there are heavy metals and other toxins in the dust from the debris in Lahaina. He said the Environmental Protection Agency is helping to clear the toxic debris.

The Health and Human Services Department on Friday declared a public health emergency in Hawaii.

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