Kahului, United States – The death toll in Hawaii from the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century is expected to cross the 100 mark on Sunday, fueling criticism that government inaction has contributed to the heavy loss of human life.
Officials say 93 people have died, but warned that figure is likely to rise as recovery teams with cadaver dogs continue the grim task of searching burned homes and vehicles in Lahaina.
Maui’s historic coastal town was almost completely destroyed by the fast inferno early Wednesday morning, with survivors saying there was no warning.
When asked on Sunday why none of the island’s sirens had been activated, Hawaiian Senator Mazie Hirono said she would await the results of an investigation announced by the state attorney general.
“I’m not going to make excuses for this tragedy,” Hirono, a Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’re really focused, as far as I’m concerned, on the need for rescue and unfortunately locating more bodies.”
More than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed when the fire tore through Lahaina, according to official estimates, causing $5.5 billion in damage and leaving thousands homeless.
“The remains we find are from a fire that melted metal,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said. “When we pick up the remains… they fall apart.”
This made identification difficult, he added, calling on people with missing relatives to provide DNA samples which could speed up the process.
Pelletier said the cadaver dogs still had a wide area to search in the hunt for what could still be hundreds of missing people.
“We are going as fast as possible. But just so you know, three percent – that’s what was searched with the dogs,” he said.
Questions about the alert system
The wildfire is the deadliest in the United States since 1918, when 453 people died in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the nonprofit research group National Fire Protection Association.
The death toll surpassed that of Camp Fire in California in 2018, which all but wiped the small town of Paradise off the map and killed 86 people.
Questions are being asked about the authorities’ preparedness for the disaster, despite the islands’ exposure to natural hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes and severe storms.
In its emergency management plan last year, the state of Hawaii described the wildfire risk to people as “low”.
Yet the layers of warning intended to protect citizens in the event of a disaster do not appear to have worked.
Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis, preventing many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their cellphones.
No emergency sirens sounded, and many Lahaina residents said they learned about the fire from neighbors running down the street or saw it for themselves.
“The mountain behind us caught fire and no one warned us,” Vilma Reed, a 63-year-old resident, told AFP.
“You know when we found out there was a fire? When it was in front of our house.
Reed, whose home was destroyed by the fire, said she was dependent on alms and kindness from strangers and slept in a car with her daughter, grandson and two cats .
For some survivors, the difficult days following the tragedy were compounded by what they see as official intransigence, roadblocks preventing them from returning to their homes.
Maui police said the public would not be allowed into Lahaina while security assessments and searches were underway – even some who could prove they lived there.
Some residents waited for hours on Saturday hoping to gain access to the comb or search for missing pets or loved ones, but police have warned that people entering the disaster area could be fined – even imprisoned.
Asked about the growing anger over the response, Hirono told CNN she understands the frustration because “we are in a time of shock and loss.”
The Maui fires follow other extreme weather events across North America this summer, with record wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave hitting the southwestern United States.
Europe and parts of Asia have also suffered high temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc. Scientists say man-made global warming is exacerbating natural hazards, making them both more likely and deadlier.
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