Painstaking search for Maui wildfire victims continues with hundreds still missing

Painstaking search for Maui wildfire victims continues with hundreds still missing

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The ongoing search for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century continued in earnest Tuesday on the Hawaiian island of Maui. At least 101 people have been confirmed dead in the blaze that destroyed most of the historic port town of Lahaina — one of several fires that broke out in Maui on Aug. 8 — but hundreds more remain missing.

Speaking Tuesday at an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, President Biden said all federal resources were being made available to Hawaii.  

“Every asset they need will be there for them,” Mr. Biden said. “And we’ll be there in Maui as long as it takes.”

Lahaina fire Maui
Lahaina, Maui, on Aug. 14, 2023. Ash and debris are all that remain at this home located near Wahinoho Way. 

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


Mr. Biden said that his administration is “surging federal personnel” to Maui to “help the brave firefighters and first responders, many of whom lost their own homes, their properties, while they’re out busting their neck to save other people.”

The president said he and first lady Jill Biden plan to travel to Hawaii “as soon as we can.”

FEMA has already deployed 380 specialists to the island, Keith Turi, FEMA deputy associate administrator for response and recovery, told reporters in a news briefing Tuesday afternoon.

About 500 Lahaina residents are currently staying in emergency shelters, Turi said, while 3,400 residents have registered with FEMA for economic assistance.

The Department of Health and Human Services has also deployed about 75 personnel, along with a victim identification team, according to Jonathan Greene, deputy assistant secretary director for the HHS Office of Response.

At least 27% of the burn area has been canvassed by search and rescue teams with cadaver dogs, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Tuesday.

Supplies are deliverd to Lahaina
Supplies for Lahaina fire victims are gathered and delivered by Hawaiians sailing on a large catamaran who often sail around the world together to Lahaina neighborhoods. Maalaea, Maui. Aug. 14, 2023.  

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


What do we know about the victims of the Lahaina fire?

Just four of the victims so far have been positively identified, according to Maui County police. Their names will be released after their families are notified. Another 13 DNA profiles have been obtained from victims, police said, and 41 DNA profiles have been obtained from family members of the missing.

Along with the 101 bodies already recovered, Green estimated Monday that about 1,300 people remain unaccounted for.

According to 2020 census data, the Lahaina community had a population of about 12,700. Maui’s overall population was at about 165,000.  

This marks the deadliest U.S. fire since 1918, when the Cloquet and Moose Lake fires in Minnesota and Wisconsin claimed the lives of 453 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association.  

How many structures have been destroyed?

At least 2,200 buildings have been destroyed or damaged in the Lahaina fire, according to preliminary numbers released over the weekend by the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center. About 86% of those are residential.

The Hawaiian Electric Company, the utility provider for 95% of Hawaii, reported that about 2,000 homes and businesses were still without power. Maui officials stressed that number does not include the more than 2,000 structures estimated to have been destroyed.

The Hawaii State Department of Health was asking those who have been allowed to return to Lahaina to exercise caution due to toxic ash and chemicals such as asbestos, arsenic, lead and debris. Many residents have expressed frustration at not being able to access their homes.

“The fact that they’re making it difficult for us to go back to where we’re from,” said Annastaceya Arcangel-Pang, who lost her home in the fire. “It’s just hard and unbelievable. I mean, I still have loved ones that are trapped.”

Supplies are deliverd to Lahaina
Lahaina, Maui on Aug. 14, 2023. The Keawe business center lies in ruins days after a fierce wildfire destroyed much of Lahaina’s business district. 

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


CBS News has learned that several victims have been found in the rubble by their own families. The Tone and Takafua family found four of their family members — including a 7-year-old girl — inside a burned-out car.

How much of Maui has burned?

The three wildfires which broke out Aug. 8 have so far burned an estimated 4.45 square miles, according to Maui officials. Two of the three fires are still burning, with dozens of firefighters working by ground and air to build containment lines and monitor for any hot spots and flare-ups.

The Lahaina fire, by far the largest of the three at 3.39 square miles, was 85% contained Tuesday.

The Upcountry/Kula fire, which has burned just over a square mile, was 65% contained. It has destroyed 19 homes, including the home of Sweethart Mori in Kula.  

Mori told CBS News Tuesday she and her family safely escaped.

“We fortunately got out alive before the fire came,” Mori said.

Mori said she plans to stay and rebuild.

“This is my land,” Mori said. We from here. This is my country. So I cannot go anywhere. You know, I think about moving to the USA because it’s so expensive over here. But where I going? I don’t belong there.”


Smaller blazes still burning in Kula

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The Pulehu/Kihei fire was fully contained over the weekend.

How did the Maui wildfires start?

The cause of the wildfires remains under investigation. Local government agencies have been under intense scrutiny for their actions as the Lahaina fire was spreading.

According to a timeline provided by Maui County, a three-acre brush fire was first reported near Lahaina Intermediate School just after 6:30 a.m. local time on the morning of Aug. 8. About two hours later, a little before 9 a.m., the fire was declared 100% contained.

With powerful wind gusts from Hurricane Dora hitting the island, four West Maui schools were then closed due to hazardous conditions, according to the Hawaii Department of Education.

Then, at approximately 3:30 p.m., the fire — which had been previously reported as fully contained — flared up and suddenly exploded with help from Dora’s 60 mph winds. None of the emergency sirens on the island were activated as the fire spread, and with power cut off, Lahaina residents said they received no text alerts.

Many were caught completely off guard and with barely enough time to escape the flames.

“It was a kind of fear and panic that I have never experienced before in my life,” Lahaina resident Kawena Kahula told CBS News.

Kahula said that with no evacuation alert, she followed a line of cars towards what she thought would be safety, but instead, “willingly, unknowingly, blindly headed into the fire.”


Maui residents say government failed them as investigation into response is launched

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“I didn’t know until there was big black mushroom clouds of smoke, continuing to stock up on each other bigger and bigger,” Kahula said.

Problems cascaded after the blaze erupted. Fire crews had no water pressure due to water-damaged pipes which had leaked and ran dry, a utility official told CBS News.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said Friday that her agency would conduct a “comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires.” 

Green said Monday that the investigation aims “not to find fault in anyone but to say why this worked and this didn’t work.” 

Norah O’Donnell, Jonathan Vigliotti, Lilia Luciano and Jordan Freiman contributed to this report. 

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