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Survivors of the deadly Maui wildfires start returning to ruins. The death toll is likely to rise

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Dogs trained to find bodies sniffed through piles of rubble and ash as stunned survivors of deadly wildfires that killed at least 80 people on the Hawaiian island of Maui took stock of their shattered lives and tried to imagine rebuilding from nothing.

Officials scrambled on Saturday to find temporary housing for more than 4,000 people as the astonishing scope of the devastation became clear. Communications were difficult, with 30 cell towers still offline, and power outages were expected to last several weeks on the western side of the island, where some fires had still not been contained as of late Friday. Authorities, meanwhile, warned that the death toll could rise as search efforts continue.

Those who escaped the fast-moving conflagrations were counting their blessings, thankful to be alive even as they mourned the loss of their homes and all of their possessions.

Bill Wyland, who lives on the island of Oahu but owns an art gallery on Lahaina’s historic Front Street, fled on his Harley Davidson, whipping the motorcycle onto empty sidewalks Tuesday to avoid traffic-jammed roads as embers burned the hair off the back of his neck.

Riding the motorcycle in winds he estimated to be at least 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour), he passed a man on a bicycle who was madly pedaling for his life.

“It’s something you’d see in a Twilight Zone, horror movie or something,” Wyland said.

Wyland, who noticed others stuck in traffic or leaping into the ocean to escape the flames, realized just how lucky he had been when he returned to downtown Lahaina on Thursday.

“It was devastating to see all the burned-out cars. There was nothing that was standing,” he said.

His gallery was destroyed, along with the works of 30 artists.

Emergency managers in Maui were still assessing the extent of the damage Saturday in the center of Lahaina, a town of about 13,000, and searching for places to house people displaced from their homes. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

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% damaged or destroyed. Nine boats sank in Lahaina Harbor, officials determined using sonar.

Maui County raised the number of confirmed deaths to 80 Friday night, and Gov. Josh Green warned that the toll would likely rise. Cadaver-sniffing dogs were deployed to search for the dead, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said.

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.

Attorney General Anne Lopez announced plans to conduct a comprehensive review of decision-making and policies affecting the response to the deadly wildfires.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.

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.

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.

Lahaina resident Lana Vierra had fled Tuesday but was eager to return, despite knowing the home where she raised five children and treasured items including 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 given the speed of the onrushing flames.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”

Curran said he had seen horrendous wildfires growing up in California.

But, he added, “I’ve never seen one eat an entire town in four hours.”



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