- Wildfires began after brush fire in Kula.
- Police barricades highly toxic town of Lahaina.
- Maui’s death toll surpassed Hawaii’s 1960 tsunami.
The death toll from the Maui wildfires increased to 80, as search teams scoured through the smouldering wreckage of Lahaina town and Hawaiin officials tried to figure out how the blaze spread so quickly without much warning across the historic tourist town.
The fires surpassed the tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960, in the same year Hawaii joined the United States, as the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history.
Officials have issued a warning that search teams are using cadaver dogs to discover further victims of the fire that destroyed 1,000 buildings, caused hundreds to lose their homes, and will probably take many years and billions of dollars to reconstruct.
“Nobody has entered any of these structures that have burned down and that’s where we, unfortunately, anticipate that the death toll will rise significantly”, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told MSNBC.
He later told CNN that Lahaina resembled a bombed-out war zone where the heat melted engine blocks.
The Lahaina fire that spread from the brush to town was still burning but 85% contained, Maui County said in a statement. Two other wildfires on the island were 80% and 50% contained.
Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire.
“I authorized a comprehensive review this morning to make sure that we know exactly what happened and when,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green told CNN, referring to the warning sirens.
Officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely what notifications were sent out, and whether they were done via text message, email, or phone calls.
Green described multiple, simultaneous challenges, with telecommunications down and firefighters concentrating on other major wildfires when the greatest threat to Lahaina arose.
In any event, he said, “We will do all that we can to find out how to protect our people more going forward.”
Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a Thursday press conference that the fire’s speed made it “nearly impossible” for frontline responders to communicate with the emergency management officials who would typically provide real-time evacuation orders.
“They were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice,” he said, referring to residents of the neighborhood where the fire initially struck.
County Mayor Richard Bissen told NBC’s “Today” show on Friday that he did not know whether sirens went off but said the fire moved extraordinarily quickly.
“I think this was an impossible situation,” he said.
The disaster began unfolding just after midnight on Tuesday when a brush fire was reported in the town of Kula, roughly 35 miles (56 km) from Lahaina. About five hours later that morning, power was knocked out in Lahaina, according to residents.
In updates posted on Facebook that morning, Maui County said the Kula fire had consumed hundreds of acres of pastureland, but that a small three-acre (1.2-hectare) brush fire that cropped up in Lahaina had been contained.
By that afternoon, however, the situation had turned more dire. At around 3:30 p.m., according to the county’s updates, the Lahaina fire suddenly flared up. Some residents began evacuating while people, including hotel guests, on the town’s west side, were instructed to shelter in place.
In the ensuing hours, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook as the fire spread through the town.
Some witnesses said they had little advance notice, describing their terror when the blaze consumed Lahaina in what seemed a matter of minutes. Several people were forced to leap into the Pacific Ocean to save themselves.
The Lahaina evacuation was complicated by its coastal location next to hills, meaning there were only two ways out, at best, said Andrew Rumbach, a specialist in climate and communities at the Urban Institute in Washington.
“This is the nightmare scenario,” said Rumbach, a former urban planning professor at the University of Hawaii. “A fast-moving fire in a densely populated place with difficult communications, and not a lot of good options in terms of evacuations.”
County officials began allowing Lahaina residents back to their homes on Friday, even though much of Maui’s western side remained without power and water. But the long traffic jam on the Kuihelani Highway crawled to a halt after an accident killed a pedestrian and led officials to close the highway in both directions.
Police barricaded central Lahaina as health officials warned the burnt areas were highly toxic and that inhaling dust and airborne particles was hazardous.
“Hot spots still exist and wearing a mask and gloves is advised,” Maui County said in a statement