MAALAEA, Hawaii – Hawaiian authorities were still trying to determine Friday what caused a deadly wildfire to sweep through Lahaina on the island of Maui with terrifying speed, killing at least 67 people and decimating the historic resort town without warning to residents.
The death toll was expected to rise as search teams combed through the charred ruins of the city with the help of body-sniffing dogs, after fire torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless in what authorities said. They say it is the worst natural disaster in the history of the state.
“As firefighting efforts continue, an additional 12 deaths have been confirmed as of 1 pm (2300 GMT) today amid the active Lahaina fire. This brings the death toll to 67 people,” Maui County said in a statement.
Governor Josh Green has been warning that the number is likely to rise further.
“Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities. We don’t know, ultimately, how many will have occurred,” Green told CNN when the death toll reached 59.
Three days after the disaster, it was unclear if any residents had received any warning before the fire swept through their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens meant to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they do not appear to have sounded during the fire.
Officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely which notifications were sent and whether they were sent by text, email or phone calls.
Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a news conference Thursday that the speed of the fire made it “almost impossible” for frontline responders to communicate with emergency management officials who would normally give evacuation orders in real time. He also noted that cell service was removed.
“Basically, they evacuated themselves with very little notice,” he said, referring to residents of the neighborhood where the fire initially broke out.
County Mayor Richard Bissen told NBC’s “Today” show Friday that he didn’t know if sirens sounded, but said the fire moved extraordinarily fast.
“I think this was an impossible situation,” he said.
The disaster began to unfold shortly after midnight Tuesday when a wildfire was reported in the town of Kula, approximately 35 miles (56 km) from Lahaina. About five hours later that morning, power went out in Lahaina, according to residents.
In updates posted to Facebook that morning, Maui County said the Kula fire had consumed hundreds of acres of grassland, but a small 3-acre wildfire that erupted in Lahaina had been contained.
That afternoon, however, the situation had become more serious. Around 3:30 p.m., according to county updates, the Lahaina fire broke out suddenly. Some residents began to evacuate as people, including hotel guests, on the city’s west side were instructed to shelter in place.
In the hours that followed, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook as the fire spread through the city.
Some witnesses said they had little advance notice and described their terror as the fire consumed Lahaina in what seemed like a matter of minutes. Several people were forced to jump into the Pacific Ocean to save themselves.
The evacuation of Lahaina was complicated by its coastal location next to the foothills, meaning there were only two exits, at best, said Andrew Rumbach, a climate and communities specialist at the Urban Institute in Washington.
“This is the nightmare scenario,” said Rumbach, a former professor of urban planning at the University of Hawaii. “A fast-moving fire in a densely populated place with difficult communications and not many good options in terms of evacuations.”
The island has six operating shelters for the displaced, and authorities said they were drafting a plan to house the newly homeless in hotels and tourist rental properties.
County officials said Lahaina residents would be allowed to return to search their properties Friday afternoon, but a 10 p.m. curfew would be imposed. Much of the western side of Maui remained without power or water.
Three Marriott hotels in West Maui have been closed due to power outages and guests have evacuated the properties, according to a company spokesperson. Some 12,400 homes and businesses were without power Friday, according to Maui County.
Volunteers formed human chains Friday afternoon at the Maalaea port to transfer infant formula, nappies, clothing, fuel and other supplies to the boats.
The boat captains planned to navigate around the fire-affected areas and bring supplies to the beach on jet skis, seconded by the area’s tourism industry, as the waters were choppy and the piers had been damaged by the fires. .
The Maui fires are the latest wildfires to break out this summer around the world. The fires forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe, while in western Canada, smoke from a series of serious fires blanketed a wide swath of the Midwest and East Coast. from USA
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