CNN

Hawaii officials identify the last of the 100 known victims of the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina

Jan 29, 2024, 5:30 PM

FILE - Photos of victims are displayed under white crosses at a memorial for victims of the August ...

FILE - Photos of victims are displayed under white crosses at a memorial for victims of the August 2023 wildfire, above the Lahaina Bypass highway, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii officials said Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, that they have identified the last of the 100 known victims of the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina in August of last year. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

HONOLULU (AP) — The last of the 100 known victims of the wildfire that destroyed Maui’s historic town of Lahaina in August was identified Friday as a 70-year-old woman whose husband, sister and several other relatives also died in the fire.

Maui police said they identified the victim as Lydia Coloma based on the context of where the remains were found, rather than through DNA or other positive identification methods.

Her husband, along with a sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, also died in the fire, said her sister-in-law, Tina Acosta, in Honolulu. Coloma was from the Ilocos Sur province in the Philippines, Acosta said, adding that she didn’t know why the final identification took so long.

“We were waiting,” she said.

Identifying those who perished in the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century has been a long, arduous process. Forensic experts and cadaver dogs have had to sift through ash searching for bodies that were possibly cremated, and authorities collected DNA samples from victims’ family members.

The DNA testing allowed officials in September to revise the death toll downward, from 115 to at least 97. The toll rose slightly over the next month as some victims succumbed to their injuries or as police found additional remains.

The number of those who remain unaccounted for has also fallen — to just a few from a previous high of nearly 400, according to the Maui Police Department. Coloma was on the unaccounted-for list before her official identification as a victim. Three people remain on the list.

The victims ranged in age from 7 to 97, but more than two-thirds were in their 60s or older, according to Maui police’s list of known victims. Several were residents of a low-income senior apartment complex.

Authorities began reopening the burn zone last fall to residents and property owners who lost homes while urging returning residents not to sift through the ashes for fear of raising toxic dust.

This month, crews started clearing debris from residential lots. The waste is being wrapped in thick industrial plastic before the Army Corps of Engineers takes it to a temporary storage site south of Lahaina.

The disaster devastated Maui and Hawaii more broadly. Caught in a hellscape, some residents died in their cars, while others jumped into the ocean or tried to run for safety.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It may have been sparked by downed power lines that ignited dry, invasive grasses. An AP investigation found the answer may lie in an overgrown gully beneath Hawaiian Electric Co. power lines and something that harbored smoldering embers from an initial fire that burned in the morning and then rekindled in high winds that afternoon.

The blaze destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, most of them homes, and is estimated to have caused $5.5 billion in damage.

Nearly six months after the blaze, about 5,000 displaced residents were still living in hotels or other short-term accommodations around Maui. Economists have warned that without zoning and other changes, housing costs in already expensive Lahaina could be prohibitively costly for many after rebuilding.

___

Associated Press reporter Audrey McAvoy contributed.

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Hawaii officials identify the last of the 100 known victims of the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina