Hawaii death toll rises to 89, making it deadliest US wildfire in 100 years

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The shells of burned houses and buildings are left after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 11, 2023. Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources/Handout via REUTERS

By Mike Blake and Marco Garcia Reuters

The death toll from the Maui wildfires in Hawaii reached 93 on Saturday, according to the Maui County website, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, with the total likely to rise as cadaver dogs sift through the ruins of Lahaina.

The scale of the damage came into sharper focus four days after a fast-moving blaze leveled the historic resort town, obliterating buildings and melting cars.

The cost to rebuild Lahaina was estimated at $5.5 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) burned.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green warned at a press conference on Saturday afternoon the death toll would continue to increase as more victims were discovered. Dogs trained to detect bodies have covered only 3% of the search area, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said.

Officials vowed to examine the state’s emergency notification systems after some residents questioned whether more could have been done to warn them before the fire overtook their homes. Some were forced to wade into the Pacific Ocean to escape.

Sirens stationed around the island – intended to warn of impending natural disasters – never sounded, and widespread power and cellular outages hampered other forms of alerts.

The state’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said she was launching a review of the decision-making before and during the fire, while Green told CNN he had authorized a review of the emergency response.

Officials have described a nightmarish confluence of factors – including communications network failures, wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour (130 kph) from an offshore hurricane and a separate wildfire dozens of miles away – that made it nearly impossible to coordinate in real time with the emergency management agency that would typically issue warnings and evacuation orders.

“Over time, we’ll be able to figure out if we could have better protected people,” said Green. He said the multiple fires and dangerous winds created extraordinarily difficult conditions.

The death toll made the inferno, which erupted on Tuesday, Hawaii’s worst natural disaster, surpassing a tsunami that killed 61 people in 1960, a year after Hawaii became a U.S. state.

The latest figure exceeded the 85 people who perished in a 2018 fire in the town of Paradise, California, and was the highest toll from a wildfire since 1918, when the Cloquet fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin claimed 453 lives.

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