Maui wildfires death toll rises to 99 as crews continue search for missing victims

Maui wildfires death toll rises to 99 as crews continue search for missing victims

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The confirmed death toll in the wildfires that swept through Maui last week rose to 99 on Monday as more than 1,000 people remained unaccounted for, local officials said. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green noted earlier that the death toll is expected to rise, as search crews could recover “10 to 20 people” a day going forward.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said Monday that 20 cadaver dogs and 90 Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel were participating in the search. Only two people had been publicly identified as of Monday, but officials said families would begin being notified soon and more identities would start to be released on Tuesday.

“The dogs can only work 15 minutes at a time and then they overheat,” Green said, adding, “There are more fatalities that will come.”

Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said that 25% of the area had been searched as of Monday night. He stressed that people who are not involved in the search and recovery effort should stay out of the area because it could compromise the teams’ efforts. 

“It’s not just ash on your clothing, when you take it off,” he said. “It’s our loved ones.”

The fire in the historic West Maui town of Lahaina broke out last Tuesday and spread rapidly. Residents were caught off guard, as the island’s emergency sirens never went off and other emergency communication systems went down as and the flames moved at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Green noted Monday that even if the sirens had gone off, they may not have been very helpful without cell phone, internet and TV service, as the sirens are generally used to warn of incoming storms or tsunamis.

Videos posted to social media showed people running into the ocean to escape the blaze as the roads were filled with cars and had come to a standstill.

The first group of dead bodies that were recovered were all found either in the water or in their cars.

More than 2,200 structures were destroyed with roughly 86% of them being residential buildings, Green said. The state has made 402 hotel rooms and 1,400 Airbnb units available as shelter for those displaced by the fires, Green said. In addition, 160 citizens have offered up their own homes as shelters.

The Lahaina fire was 85% contained with an estimated 2,170 acres burned as of Monday, Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a Monday news conference. 

The Kula fire, burning in the area known as Upcountry, was 60% contained, Ventura said. That fire had already burned an estimated 678 acres, and multiple hot spots were burning in gulches and other hard-to-reach places.

Getting supplies to those in need on the Hawaiian islands can be difficult, as everything needs to either be flown in or brought by boat. More than 1 million pounds of food have already been delivered and other supplies, including diapers and baby formula, were also being distributed, Green said.


Investigation launched into Maui fire response

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Maui residents were also pitching in, with many loading boats with emergency supplies to be shipped to some of the hardest hit areas, with some telling CBS News the government’s response has been inadequate.

“We are still loading up our personal vehicles right now to go to parts of the community that have not seen federal, state or county employees,” Maui resident Paul Romero said.

Green said Monday that some of the decisions made “behind the scenes” were “based on safety.”

“I appreciate everything that everyone’s done when the government couldn’t get to them, but there’s a whole heck of a lot of government around right now to try to make sure that people are whole,” he said.

The Maui Humane Society was working to recover as many animals, both living and deceased, as it could, Humane Society CEO Lisa M. Labrecque said. An estimated 3,000 animals were missing on the island. The group had recovered 52 live animals from the Lahaina area, including 12 that were hospitalized as of Monday. Eight animals had been reunited with their families.

Labrecque asked that people not move or destroy any dead animals they may come across so that the Humane Society could try to identify them and inform their families.

The cause of the fires and the local response are both under investigation. Maui was being lashed with heavy wind gusts coming from Hurricane Dora, hundreds of miles south of the islands, when the Lahaina blaze ignited. 

Claims surfaced over the weekend that suggested the power company Hawaiian Electric, which operates Maui Electric and services 95% of the state overall, did not implement precautionary safety measures included in an emergency plan to reduce wildfire risks ahead of the storm. Citing documents, a Washington Post report published Saturday noted that the provider did not shut off electricity to areas where strong winds were expected and could spark flames.

In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for Maui Electric said that some steps were taken to mitigate the possibility of fires sparking before hurricane winds arrived.

Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said Monday that all three transmission lines that serve west Maui were knocked out of service during the wind and fires last Tuesday. As of Monday, power had been restored to all but 2,000 customers, not counting the buildings that had been destroyed, Kimura said.

Before many residents have even been able to assess the damage, concerns were already rising about predatory land acquisitions. Green said Monday that he and the attorney general were exploring the possibility of a moratorium on the sale of any destroyed property. The governor also warned any would-be buyers that it would be a bad investment.

“I would caution people that it’s going to be a very long time before any growth or housing can be built, and so you will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here,” Green said. 

— Emily Mae Czachor contributed reporting.  

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