By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)
Follow live updates about wildfires that have devastated parts of Maui in Hawaii this week, destroying a historic town and forcing evacuations. The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain, was partly to blame for strong winds that initially drove the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
In a press conference Saturday, Gov. Josh Green said the number of confirmed deaths from the Maui wildfires has risen to 89, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
There were 2,200 structures destroyed or damaged just in West Maui, and 86% of those were residential buildings, Green said
“The losses approach $6 billion in estimate,” Green said, adding that it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.
Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.
“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”
Green said he expects the death toll to rise. While walking down Front Street, he told reporters that some victims were positively identified Saturday.
“I had tears this morning,” Green said, adding that he was afraid of what he would see at the disaster site.
Operations were focusing on “the loss of life,” he added.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has been spray-painting cars and buildings on Front Street with an “X” to indicate they had received an initial check, but that there could still be human remains inside. When crews do another pass through, if they find remains, they will add the letters “HR.”
As the death toll rises, it’s unclear how morgues will be able to accommodate the number of victims considering there is just one hospital and three mortuaries.
The current toll stood at 80 as of Friday, according to a statement by Maui County.
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.
Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.
Mike Rice has been looking for friends but has yet to hear from them. Complicating matters is the fact that they don’t have cellphones. It’s too early to give up hope, he said, but he has not discounted the possibility that they might have perished.
“I think they could have very well made it out,” said Rice, who now lives in California. “They may or may not have made it. I’m not going to sit around with a sense of impending doom waiting to find out.”
Starting this weekend 500 hotels rooms will be made available for displaced locals, and another 500 will be set aside for FEMA personnel, according to the governor.
The state wants to work with Airbnb to ensure rental homes are available for locals, and Green hopes the company can provide three- to nine-month rentals.
Flyovers by the Civil Air Patrol found 1,692 structures destroyed, almost all of them residential. Officials earlier had said 2,719 structures were exposed to the fire, with more than 80% of them damaged or destroyed.
There also was new information Saturday about damage to boats, with nine confirmed to have sunk in Lahaina Harbor, according to sonar.
Some 30 cell towers were still offline, and power outages were expected to last several weeks in west Maui.
Some residents in Lahaina have expressed frustration about having difficulty accessing their homes amid road closures and police checkpoints on the western side of the island.
On the south end of Front Street on Saturday morning, one resident walked barefoot carrying a laptop and a passport, asking how to get to the nearest shelter. Another person, riding his bicycle, took stock of the damage at the harbor, where he said his boat caught fire and sank.
One fire engine and a few construction trucks were seen driving through the neighborhood, but it remained eerily devoid of human and official government activity.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. surveyed the damage in Lahaina on Thursday and said the historic town that has been reduced to charred vehicles and ash doesn’t resemble the place he knew growing up.
“The closest thing I think I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone, or maybe a bomb went off,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday. “It was cars in the street, doors open, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist.”
Regarding search and rescue efforts, he said some cadaver dogs arrived Friday.
Police say a new fire burning on the Hawaii island of Maui has triggered the evacuation of a community to the northeast of the area that burned earlier this week.
The fire prompted the evacuation of people in Kaanapali in West Maui on Friday night, the Maui Police Department announced on social media. No details of the evacuation were immediately provided.
Traffic was halted earlier after some people went over barricaded, closed-off areas of the disaster zone and “entered restricted, dangerous, active investigation scenes,” police said.
In an earlier post on Facebook Friday, police said many people were parking on the Lahaina Bypass and walking into nearby areas that were “locked down due to hazardous conditions and biohazards.” Police warned that violators could face arrest.
“This area is an active police scene, and we need to preserve the dignity of lives lost and respect their surviving family,” the post said.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez’s office will be conducting a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires, she said in a statement Friday.
“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. “As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”
Kula residents who have running water were warned Friday by the Maui County water agency not to drink it and to take only short, lukewarm showers “in a well-ventilated room” to avoid exposure to possible chemical vapors, though some experts caution against showering at all.
Agency director John Stufflebean told The Associated Press that people in Kula and Lahaina should not even drink water after boiling it until further notice, as hundreds of pipes have been damaged by the wildfires.
“We talked to the health department, and they say it is OK to take a short shower,” Stufflebean said. “You don’t want to make the water really hot, but lukewarm water in a well-ventilated area should be OK.”
The state needs to reassess their guidance to the utility, said Andrew Whelton, an engineering professor at Purdue University whose team was called in after the 2018 fire that destroyed Paradise, California, and the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado.
“Showering in water that potentially contains hazardous waste levels of benzene is not advisable,” Whelton said. “A Do Not Use order is appropriate as a precautionary measure until sampling and analysis is conducted.”
Whenever a water pipe is damaged or a city water tank is drawn down very quickly, it can lose pressure. That can cause the unpressurized pipes to suck in smoke and other contaminants. Some of the contaminants that are common with urban wildfires are cancer-causing.
Crews are now shutting off valves for damaged pipes to avoid further contamination, Stufflebean said. Next the Department of Water Supply will flush the system, which could take a few days. Then, officials plan to test for bacteria and an array of volatile organic compounds, following recommendations from the Hawaii State Department of Health, he said.
Maui gets drinking water from streams and aquifers. It has a large public water system, but some people are on private, unregulated wells.
A Coast Guard swimmer jumped into the ocean to rescue two children and three adults who had fled the flames in Maui earlier this week, a commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu told reporters Friday.
Capt. Aja Kirksey said Coast Guard members moved quickly on Tuesday to help rescue people who were forced to jump into the ocean to escape the wildfire.
Kirksey said the Coast Guard rescued 17 people from the water, all of whom are in stable condition. Kirksey said that there were more people that were ultimately saved from the water, but others were rescued by other agencies.
This week’s wildfires are expected to be the second costliest disaster in the history of Hawaii, second only to damages from 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, according to a Friday statement from a prominent disaster and risk modeling company.
Karen Clark & Company said in the statement that approximately 3,500 structures were within the perimeter of the fire that torched the popular tourist town of Lahaina in west Maui.
Officials said Thursday that fast-moving flames destroyed 1,000 buildings and killed 55 people, although both numbers are expected to increase.
Bissen Jr. said Friday he couldn’t comment on a report by the AP that the state’s emergency management records showed no indication that warning sirens sounded off before people were forced to flee.
“I think this was an impossible situation,” Bissen told NBC’s “Today” show. “The fires came up so quickly and they spread so fast.”
Meanwhile, the county said residents with identification and visitors with proof of hotel reservations could return to parts of Lahaina starting at noon Friday. They will not be allowed into a restricted area of the historic part of Lahaina.
The county said in a statement that a curfew, intended to protect residences and property, would be in place starting Friday from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups.
The County of Maui said early Friday that 14,900 visitors left Maui by air Thursday.
Airlines added additional flights to accommodate visitors leaving the island. The county advised visitors that they can book flights to Honolulu and continue on another flight to their destination.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called on residents and visitors to suspend unnecessary travel to the island to make space for first responders and volunteers heading there to help residents. Visitors whose trips are considered nonessential travel are being asked to leave the island, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.
This story has been updated to correct the date and location of past wildfires. The Camp Fire occurred in 2018, not 2017, and the 2021 Marshall Fire was in Boulder County, Colorado, not Boulder.
Associated Press journalists Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Ty O’Neil in Lahaina, Maui; Christopher Weber in Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Claire Rush and Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu; Christopher Megerian in Salt Lake City; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York; Caleb Jones in Concord, Massachusetts; Brittany Peterson in Denver; Janie Har in San Francisco; and Sophie Austin in Sacramento contributed to this report.