[Editor’s Note: The video report above shows how a NE Ohio native, that now lives in Hawaii, could see the devastating wildfires from her backyard on August 9, 2023.]
The number of confirmed fatalities in the 9 p.m. announcement by the County of Maui increased from the previous figure of 67.
Gov. Josh Green had previously warned the death toll would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue. Authorities set a curfew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Saturday.
“The recovery’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely, because it’s pretty dangerous,” Green told Hawaii News Now.
Cadaver-sniffing dogs were deployed to search for the dead, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said.
Blackened hulks of burned-out cars, the pavement streaked with melted and then rehardened chrome. Block after block of flattened homes and businesses. Incinerated telephone poles and elevator shafts rising from ashy lots where apartment buildings once stood. A truck bed full of glass bottles, warped into surreal shapes by the furious heat.
Anthony Garcia assessed the devastation as he stood under Lahaina’s iconic banyan tree, now charred, and swept twisted branches into neat piles next to another heap filled with dead animals: cats, roosters and other birds killed by the smoke and flames. Somehow it made sense in a world turned upside-down.
“If I don’t do something, I’ll go nuts,” said Garcia, who lost everything he owned. “I’m losing my faith in God.”
Garcia and other residents were faced with widespread destruction as they took stock of their shattered homes and lives Friday resulting from the wildfires that tore through parts of Maui this week and were still short of full containment.
A new fire Friday evening triggered the evacuation of Kaanapali in West Maui, a community northeast of the area that burned earlier, the Maui Police Department announced on social media.
The fire, which was completely extinguished before 8:30 p.m., occurred in an area where a county fueling station was set up to distribute about 3,000 gallons (11,356 liters) of gasoline and 500 gallons (1,892 liters) of diesel fuel for about 400 waiting vehicles. Fuel would not be distributed on Saturday, the county said in a statement.
Attorney General Anne Lopez announced plans to conduct a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies impacting the response to the deadly wildfires.
“My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said in a statement.
The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted development of a territory-wide emergency system with sirens that are tested monthly.
Many fire survivors said they didn’t hear any sirens or receive a warning giving them enough time to prepare, realizing they were in danger only when they saw flames or heard explosions.
“There was no warning,” said Lynn Robinson, who lost her home.
Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate warning sirens sounded before people had to run for their lives. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and left a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes. Associated Press journalists found the devastation included nearly every building on Front Street, the heart of historic Lahaina and the economic hub of Maui.
There was an eerie traffic jam of charred cars that didn’t escape the inferno as surviving roosters meandered through the ashes. Skeletal remains of buildings bowed under roofs that pancaked in the blaze. Palm trees were torched, boats in the harbor were scorched and the stench of burning lingered.
“It hit so quick, it was incredible,” Kyle Scharnhorst said as he surveyed his damaged apartment complex.
Summer and Gilles Gerling sought to salvage keepsakes from the ashes of their home. All they could find was the piggy bank Summer Gerling’s father gave her as a child, their daughter’s jade bracelet and watches they gifted each other for their wedding. Their wedding rings were gone.
They described their fear as the strong wind whipped the smoke and flames closer, but said they were happy to have made it out alive with their two children.
“Safety was the main concern. These are all material things,” Gilles Gerling said.
The wildfire is already projected to be the second-costliest disaster in Hawaii history, behind only Hurricane Iniki in 1992, according to disaster and risk modeling firm Karen Clark & Company. The fire is the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
The danger on Maui was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan updated in 2020 identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and several buildings at risk. The report also noted West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.
“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan stated.
Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.
Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters working at any given time with responsibility for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
The department has about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but no off-road vehicles to thoroughly attack brush fires before they reach roads or populated areas, he said.
Maui water officials warned Kula and Lahaina residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapor exposure.
Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University engineering professor whose team assisted with the Camp Fire and Colorado’s 2021 Marshall Fire, said showering in water potentially containing hazardous waste levels of benzene is not advisable and a do-not-use order would be appropriate until analysis is complete.
Lahaina resident Lana Vierra, who filled out FEMA assistance forms Friday at a relative’s house, fled Tuesday and was eager to return, despite knowing the home where she raised five children and treasured items like baby pictures and yearbooks were gone.
“To actually stand there on your burnt grounds and get your wheels turning on how to move forward — I think it will give families that peace,” she said.
Riley Curran said he fled his Front Street home after climbing up a neighboring building to get a better look. He doubts county officials could have done more due to the speed of the onrushing flames.
“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from 0 to 100.”
Curran had seen horrendous wildfires growing up in California, but “I’ve never seen one eat an entire town in four hours.”