Maui wildfires kill at least 67 people, race is on to find countless others who are missing

Aug 11, 2023, 6:15 PM | Updated: 6:21 pm

Wildfires in Maui have killed at least 55 people, displaced thousands and demolished many homes Bur...

Wildfires in Maui have killed at least 55 people, displaced thousands and demolished many homes Burned cars seen on August 11 after wildfires raged through Lahaina, Hawaii. A local Hawaiian shaved ice shack will be raising money on Saturday to donate to families impacted by the Maui wildfires. Photo credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN

(CNN) — The frantic search for survivors trapped by Maui’s infernos has grown bleak, with cadaver dogs sifting through the charred remains of neighborhoods and countless residents still nowhere to be found.

The death toll from this week’s wildfires has soared to 67, according to Maui County, making the fires the largest natural disaster in the state’s history. The death toll continued to climb Friday, surpassing the state’s record natural disaster death toll of 61 from a 1960 tsunami that hit Hilo Bay.

Governor Josh Green told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday that none of the human remains discovered in Lahaina were found inside structures yet, but the confirmed fatalities “did occur out in the open as people tried to escape the fire.”

Green said that within days officials expect to have a more comprehensive idea of how many lives were lost.

“We will continue to see loss of life,” Green said during a news conference late Thursday. “We also have many hundreds of homes destroyed, and that’s going to take a great deal of time to recover from.”

Now, families wait in agony to learn what happened to their missing loved ones.

Live updates: Deadly wildfires burn across Maui

Timm Williams Sr., a 66-year-old disabled veteran who uses a wheelchair, last spoke with his family Wednesday as he was trying to flee Kaanapali, just north of the obliterated town of Lahaina.

Shortly before he went missing, Williams sent a photo of flames shooting toward the sky, his granddaughter Brittany Talley told CNN.

While he fled, Williams said he couldn’t tell exactly where he was due to the intense smoke in the air, Talley recalled. “He was attempting to make it to a shelter, but all of the roads were blocked,” she said.

The family has tried every means possible to find the missing grandfather, but to no avail.

“It has been difficult,” Talley said. “Every minute that goes by is another minute that he could be hurt or in danger.”

Widespread devastation

While rescue crews scramble to find survivors, here’s the latest on the ongoing catastrophe:

• Cadaver dogs are looking for victims: Search-and-rescue teams with cadaver dogs from California and Washington are in Maui to help with recovery efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

• Thousands are displaced: About 1,400 people slept at an airport Wednesday night and more than 1,300 stayed in emergency shelters before many of them were taken to the airport to leave the island, Maui County officials said. Thousands of people are believed to have been displaced, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN on Thursday.

• Billions of dollars in losses: Determining the full scope of the fires’ impacts on the island will take time, “but it will be in the billions of dollars without a doubt,” the governor said Thursday.

It will take many years to rebuild Lahaina, where “upwards of 1,700 buildings” may have been destroyed, Green told CNN. He said it appears about 80% of the town is “gone.”

• Housing appeal: With many having nowhere to stay, the governor asked residents to open up their homes and hotels to help those in need. “If you have additional space in your home, if you have the capacity to take someone in from west Maui, please do,” Green said.

“Please consider bringing those people into your lives.”

• Fires have burned for days: As of Thursday, the four largest fires still were active in Maui County, Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said. “Additionally, we’ve had many small fires in between these large fires,” the chief said.

“And with the current weather pattern that we’re facing, we still have the potential for rapid fire behavior.” The wildfire that torched Lahaina was 80% contained by Thursday morning, Maui County officials said.

• Communication and power outages: Officials have resorted to satellite phones to communicate with providers on the west side of Maui to restore power to the area, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said.

About 11,000 homes and businesses were in the dark early Friday, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.us.

• Resources sent to Maui: President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration to provide federal funding for recovery costs in Maui County. California plans to send a search and rescue team to help support efforts on the ground in Maui. And more than 130 members from the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard have been assigned to provide assistance.

Lahaina residents will see ‘destruction like they’ve not ever seen’

No one knows how many people were still missing Friday after wildfires annihilated the historic town of Lahaina, where 13,000 people lived.

“Here’s the challenge: There’s no power. There’s no internet. There’s no radio coverage,” Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said Thursday.

Lahaina – an economic hub that draws millions of tourists each year and the one-time capital of the kingdom of Hawaii – is “all gone,” said Maui County Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr.

Residents of west Maui will be allowed to access Lahaina starting Friday at noon local time, according to a news release from the county. Residents will need identification with proof of residency. Visitors will need proof of hotel reservations. Barricades have been set up to prevent access to the “heavily impacted area of historic Lahaina town” where search crews are continuing to look for victims of the fires.

A curfew will also be in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time “in historic Lahaina town and affected areas,” the news release says.

“Now I want to caution everyone, Lahaina is a devastated zone,” Green warned Friday in an interview with local station KHON. Returning residents “will see destruction like they’ve not ever seen in their lives. Everyone, please brace themselves as they go back.”

Green said a hotline will likely be established to connect displaced residents with available rooms in homes and hotels.

Search dogs have not yet been able to access every burned building, Green said, cautioning residents not to enter any charred structure that appears unsafe.

The governor said he plans to return to Maui on Saturday.

In a Friday news release, the Department of Water Supply also asked Maui residents to conserve water, as first responders continue to fight the flames and intermittent power outages take place. The department asked residents island-wide to refrain from washing cars, washing sidewalks and driveways, and irrigating lawns.

Timeline shows how rapidly the wildfires spread

Most of Maui looked like its idyllic self on Tuesday morning before the flames spread out of control.

At 9:55 a.m., Maui County posted a seemingly optimistic update on the Lahaina fire:

“Maui Fire Department declared the Lahaina brush fire 100% contained shortly before 9 a.m. today,” the county said on Facebook Tuesday.

About an hour later, the county updated residents on another wildfire burning:

“Kula Fire Update No. 2 at 10:50 a.m.: Firefighter crews remain on scene of a brush fire that was reported at 12:22 a.m. today near Olinda Road in Kula and led to evacuations of residents in the Kula 200 and Hanamu Road areas,” the county said.

By Tuesday afternoon, another wildfire became an increasing threat:

“With the potential risk of escalating conditions from an Upcountry brush fire, the Fire Department is strongly advising residents of Piʻiholo and Olinda roads to proactively evacuate,” Maui County posted at 3:20 p.m. Less than an hour later, it said, “The Fire Department is calling for the immediate evacuation of residents of the subdivision including Kulalani Drive and Kulalani Circle due to an Upcountry brush fire.”

Shortly later, the county said the Lahaina fire had resurged.

“An apparent flareup of the Lahaina fire forced the closure of Lahaina Bypass around 3:30 p.m.,” Maui County posted at 4:45 p.m.

And by 5:50 p.m. Tuesday, there were “Multiple evacuations in place for Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires,” the county said.

As the ferocious fires spread, some people jumped into the ocean to escape the flames. Rescuers plucked dozens of people from the water or the shore.

Green said he has authorized a “comprehensive review” of the response to the fast-moving fires. State records show that Maui’s warning sirens were not activated, and the emergency communications with residents was largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already cut.

“The telecommunications were destroyed very rapidly,” the governor said, blaming the rapid spread of the fires on “global warming, combined with drought, combined with a superstorm.”

Green added that restoring utilities will likely to be a lengthy process because of Lahaina’s remote location, as workers and raw materials cannot simply be driven to Hawaii. “This is not to make an excuse. This is just to explain the realities of the island, especially in the post-Covid era,” he said.

‘The apocalypse was happening’

May Wedelin-Lee is one of countless residents who lost homes in Lahaina. She described the horror and desperation of those trying to escape and survive.

“The apocalypse was happening,” she told CNN on Thursday.

“People were crying on the side of the road and begging,” Wedelin-Lee said. “Some people had bicycles, people ran, people had skateboards, people had cats under their arm. They had a baby in tow, just sprinting down the street.”

The fire moved so quickly that many left their homes immediately with little notice from authorities, Maui County’s fire chief said.

“What we experienced was such a fast-moving fire through the neighborhood that the initial neighborhood that caught fire, they were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice,” Fire Chief Brad Ventura said.

The fires have damaged or destroyed hundreds of structures in Maui County, local officials estimate.

“All of those buildings virtually are going to have to be rebuilt,” Green said Thursday. “It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image with its own values.”

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Maui wildfires kill at least 67 people, race is on to find countless others who are missing