Hawaii wildfire death toll climbs to 80 as questions raised over warnings

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The death toll from the Maui wildfires rose to 80 on Friday as search teams combed through the smouldering ruins of Lahaina, and Hawaiian officials sought to determine how the inferno spread so rapidly through the historic resort town with little warning.

The fires became the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history, surpassing that of a tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960, a year after Hawaii joined the United States.

Officials have warned that search teams with cadaver dogs could still find more dead from the fire that torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless, likely requiring many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.

“Nobody has entered any of these structures that have burned down and that’s where we unfortunately anticipate that the death toll will rise significantly,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told MSNBC.

In a late evening statement, Maui County said the death toll had risen to 80.

The Lahaina fire that spread from the brush to town was still burning but 85 per cent contained, the county said earlier. Two other wildfires on the island were 80 per cent and 50 per cent contained.

In a shot taken from above, two people on a red motorized scooter travel through a grey, crumpled landscape.
On Friday, two men ride a scooter by businesses that were destroyed by wildfire in Lahaina. (Getty Images)

The fires, fuelled by winds from Hurricane Dora passing south of the island chain, nearly wiped out the town of 13,000.

Madelyn Barrett, speaking from a friend’s house in nearby Kihei, remembers feeling terrified for hours by the extreme winds as flames were tearing through Lahaina on Tuesday.

Exploding propane tanks gave warning

Around 4 p.m., she saw a giant cloud of black smoke out of the kitchen window, “and as soon as I could hear people’s propane tanks blowing up, I knew it was time to get out,” she told CBC News on Saturday.

Barrett and her mother returned on Friday to find their home was nothing more than dust and some roof metal.

WATCH | ‘Everything is gone,’ says Hawaii resident who lost home to wildfires

‘Everything is gone,’ says Hawaii resident who lost home to wildfires

‘There’s hundreds if not thousands of people that have no housing,’ says Mindy Barrett, whose home was destroyed in the wildfires.

“It’s been awful. Everything is gone, the town, lots of people, the houses, the trees,” said Mindy Barrett.

They said officials need to evacuate tourists from the town in order to provide immediate relief to the locals, including those wandering around and getting sunburned.

Destroyed houses, with burnt-out vehicles in the forefront, after a wildfire on the island of Maui.
Burned cars and homes are pictured on Friday in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii. (Paula Ramon/AFP/Getty Images)

Jessie Watkins, a Canadian tourist from Kingston, Ont., remembers the dangers in leaving Lahaina as strong winds toppled power lines and left roads closed.

“You couldn’t escape, because everywhere you turned, it was barricaded,” she told CBC News after arriving at the Vancouver airport on Friday.

“You could just see the fire coming at you. Eventually people just drove through the barricades. It was the only way to escape.”

Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.

WATCH | Hundreds of Canadians return from Maui with stories of devastation

Hundreds of Canadians return from Maui with stories of devastation

Canadian evacuees from Maui arrive with stories of complete devastation, loss of life and property.

The island has emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire.

“I authorized a comprehensive review this morning to make sure that we know exactly what happened and when,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CNN, referring to the warning sirens.

Officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely what notifications were sent out, and whether they were done via text message, email or phone calls.

Burned out vehicles with no tires sit in front of burned, twisted structure.
Wildfire wreckage is seen on Friday in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out most of the town. (Rick Bowner/The Associated Press)

Green described multiple, simultaneous challenges, with telecommunications down and firefighters concentrating on other major wildfires when the greatest threat to Lahaina arose.

In any event, he said, “We will do all that we can to find out how to protect our people more going forward.”

Fire too quick for first-line responders

Maui County fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a news conference on Thursday that the fire’s speed made it “nearly impossible” for front-line responders to communicate with the emergency management officials who would typically provide real-time evacuation orders.

“They were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice,” he said, referring to residents of the neighbourhood where the fire initially struck.

County Mayor Richard Bissen told NBC’s Today show on Friday that he did not know whether sirens went off but said the fire moved extraordinarily quickly.

WATCH | Maui on fire: stories of survival: 

Maui on fire: stories of survival | About That

Wildfires have devastated much of the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing dozens of people. Andrew Chang highlights harrowing stories of people who lived through it.

“I think this was an impossible situation,” he said.

The disaster began unfolding just after midnight on Tuesday when a brush fire was reported in the town of Kula, roughly 56 kilometres from Lahaina. About five hours later that morning, power was knocked out in Lahaina, according to residents.

In updates posted on Facebook that morning, Maui County said the Kula fire had consumed hundreds of hectares of pastureland, but that a small 1.2-hectare brush fire that cropped up in Lahaina had been contained.

Little advance notice

By that afternoon, however, the situation had turned more dire. Around 3:30 p.m. local time, according to county updates, the Lahaina fire suddenly flared up. Some residents began to flee while people, including hotel guests, on the town’s west side were instructed to shelter in place.

In the ensuing hours, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook as the fire spread through the town.

Some witnesses said they had little advance notice, describing their terror when the blaze consumed Lahaina in what seemed to be a matter of minutes. Several people were forced to leap into the Pacific Ocean to save themselves.

The evacuation from Lahaina was complicated by its coastal location next to hills, meaning there were only two ways out, at best, said Andrew Rumbach, a specialist in climate and communities at the Urban Institute in Washington.

“This is the nightmare scenario,” said Rumbach, a former urban planning professor at the University of Hawaii. “A fast-moving fire in a densely populated place with difficult communications, and not a lot of good options in terms of evacuations.”

County officials began allowing Lahaina residents back to their homes on Friday, even though much of Maui’s western side remained without power and water.

WATCH | Maui residents deliver emergency supplies by boat

Maui residents deliver emergency supplies by boat

A flotilla of jet skis set off from Maalaea on the southwest coast of Maui accompanying a boat loaded with emergency supplies for residents of Lahaina. The jet skis were seconded by tourism operators and were needed to deliver the infant formula, diapers, fuel and other supplies to the shore because docks were damaged by Tuesday’s wildfire.

But the long traffic jam on the Kuihelani Highway crawled to a halt after an accident killed a pedestrian and led officials to close the highway in both directions.

Police barricaded central Lahaina as health officials warned the burned areas were highly toxic and that inhaling dust and airborne particles was hazardous.

“Hot spots still exist and wearing a mask and gloves is advised,” Maui County said in a statement.

Maui water officials have 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 vapour exposure.

Authorities on Friday set a curfew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. in affected areas.



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