Maui Fire Death Toll Rises to 67 as Rescue Efforts Continue

Officials raised the death toll from devastating wildfires on the Hawaii island of Maui to 67 as rescue and clean-up crews continued to dig through the rubble of the historic town of Lahaina.

(Bloomberg) — Officials raised the death toll from devastating wildfires on the Hawaii island of Maui to 67 as rescue and clean-up crews continued to dig through the rubble of the historic town of Lahaina. 

Authorities confirmed another 12 deaths on Friday as firefighters still had not fully contained the blaze that razed Lahaina, according to a statement from Maui County. Around 1,000 people remained unaccounted for, police said earlier. County water officials told residents not to drink tap water because of concerns it was contaminated from the fires.  

“We have suffered a tragedy here in Hawaii,” Governor Josh Green said Friday in video posted on Facebook. “The fires on Maui have been devastating. But we have hope.”

Green said Thursday that the death count would probably rise as search crews work through the damage that he characterized as looking like a bomb scene. The blazes destroyed 1,000 or more structures, Green said. Accuweather Inc. put the preliminary estimate of damage from the fires at $8 billion to $10 billion.

Aerial surveys found more than 270 buildings burned in the seaside resort of Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Thousands of residents and tourists had fled an area left without electricity, phone service or the internet. After witnessing the damage first hand, the governor said it was likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii history. 

Photos and videos posted to social media this week depicted apocalyptic scenes. The flames — fanned by strong winds from a hurricane far off the coast — barreled through the town so quickly that residents had little time to flee, and some even jumped into the ocean to escape. The Coast Guard said it rescued more than a dozen people from the waters off Lahaina on the West Maui coast.

Hawaii’s Attorney General office will conduct a “comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires,” the department said in a statement Friday.  

Read more: 13 Photos Show the Destructive Force of Wildfires in Maui

The old Lahaina, including its Front Street tourist destination once packed with waterfront restaurants and shops, has been destroyed, Green said. Virtually every building in Lahaina, he said, would need to be replaced, taking many years and billions of dollars. Initial damage estimates in all likelihood will climb as the fullest extent of the wreckage becomes known.

President Joe Biden on Thursday declared a major disaster in Hawaii, freeing up federal funds to aid recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is assisting with search and rescue efforts in Lahaina, Anne Bink, associate administrator of response and recovery, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

The agency has a stockpile of water and ready-to-eat meals on hand, and will arrange short-term shelter for people whose homes have been lost or damaged, in addition to assisting with the eventual rebuilding process, Bink said.

Read More: Hawaii Wildfires Become More Frequent as Drought Withers Grass

The type of grass fire that hit Lahaina spreads extremely quickly, according to climate and wildfire expert Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor of civil engineering at Boise State University. The blaze was spread by winds from a high-pressure zone to the north that swept downwards toward Hurricane Dora, a low-pressure zone off to the south.

While such complexities make it harder for scientists to define the role global warming may have had in exacerbating the disaster, climate change is extending the length of fire season and increasing areas burned in many parts of the world. A recent study Sadegh co-authored found that between 2000 and 2019, the number of people in the US exposed to wildfire risk doubled.

Green’s administration was reaching out to nearby hotels emptied of vacationers to secure 2,000 rooms for the displaced. But he also asked island residents whose homes remained intact to take in people needing shelter.

“All of us have a loved one here on Maui that lost a home, that lost a friend,” Green said.

The fire was one of several that erupted this week on Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands. 

While it is unknown what sparked the flames, they drew their destructive power from some of the same conditions that have fueled devastating blazes this year from Canada to Greece: vegetation sucked dry by drought and strong winds. Some 36% of Maui County is in moderate to severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. 

Read More: Wildfire Expert on What Fed Deadly Flames in Hawaii: Q&A

Wildfires used to be rare in Hawaii, but they started becoming more frequent in the 1990s as many of the old agricultural plantations and ranches closed, said Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire management specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Invasive, non-native grasses took over fallow land and have provided new fuel for blazes. 

Some communities are trying to reforest these grass lands, using tree shade to control the grasses, or return them to agriculture, but not at the scale needed, he said.

“We’ve just primed ourselves for a disaster like this,” Trauernicht said.

(Updates with county warning about water contamination in second paragraph, statement from the state’s Attorney General’s office in seventh paragraph)

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