With 93 Deaths, Maui Wildfire Named Deadliest in Modern Times

Aug. 13, 2023
Gov. Josh Green confirmed 93 deaths and FEMA said additional searchers are en route to Maui with cadaver dogs to search the wildfire's destruction.

Aug. 12—The death toll in the Maui fires climbed to at least 93 on Saturday, officials said, surpassing California's Camp Fire, which killed 85, cementing the event as Hawaii's deadliest natural disaster and the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history.

Gov. Josh Green said at a Saturday evening news conference that the number of dead is expected to rise.

He added that the economic losses from the blaze has approached $6 billion.

Green said it was rare to "see this level of government leadership all come together," and thanked the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for its help amid the devastation. He also said that there would be reviews of existing policies and the government response "to make things safer going" forward "because the world has changed," referring to the extraordinary winds from a nearby hurricane that whipped up the fire and spread it quickly.

Officials said at the news conference that the level of destruction was difficult to comprehend, and Gov. Green said many people were "stunned" and "traumatized." Officials spoke about efforts to help those who'd lost homes, saying the housing situation was a top concern with so many displaced and that 1,000 temporary rooms had been secured. Maui struggled from a housing crisis even before the blaze.

Officials also called for neighbors to help each other and stay hopeful.

"We ask that you not give into despair," FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said.

FEMA said on social media Saturday that than 150 people were working on search and rescue crews with more on the way as they continued this weekend to comb through the wreckage on the western shore of Maui, primarily in the devastated city of Lahaina, as well as in the Kihei area and the island's upcountry hills around Kula.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday evening that officials had requested 12 additional cadaver dogs to aid in the search.

"We have a lot of work we have to do," he said at the news conference. "We have an area we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles. We're going as fast as we can."

Pelletier warned that the process to identify the dead would take a while, saying that he wanted to ensure his team did it the "right" way. He said family members with missing loved ones should visit the family assistance center in Kahului for DNA tests.

"You have to do rapid DNA to identify them. Every one of these 89 are John and Jane Doe's," he said.

More than 2,207 structures were leveled in the firestorm, according to updates on Saturday, leaving historical Lahaina and neighboring areas blackened and unrecognizable. Federal officials pledged again on Saturday to sending financial assistance to help rebuild businesses and aid in the economic recovery of the area. Officials have discouraged non-essential travel to the area and it's not clear when that message might shift.

Thousands of people have had to flee their homes and some huddled in the ocean for hours to survive.

The fires swept across the island on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaping from vast swaths of remote grasslands into populated areas. The blazes were fueled by powerful winds from the passing Hurricane Dora.

Maui County officials said that a fire that ignited in Kaanapali and burned one acre but was contained Saturday. Firefighters were still working to fully extinguish the flames, according to a 2 p.m. Saturday update.

Officials warned people in Lahaina and Kula on Saturday not to drink tap water due to fears of harmful contaminants entering the water system.

One California weather expert weighed in Saturday on the extraordinary nature of the windstorm that fueled the fires in Maui. In a social media thread, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said that footage appeared to suggest that the windstorm prior to the fires was more severe than first reported. "Damage to roofs & power poles before fire started seems indicative of gusts much stronger than 40-60mph," Swain said. Swain added that the power of the storm could explain why Maui's power infrastructure sustained so much damage.

"Unfortunately, when winds are that strong and vegetation is that dense and dry, fires really can become that intense," he said.

Green also said Saturday that winds were 60 mph with gusts up to 80 mph, making the fire grow quickly.

Firefighters were still working to put out flare-ups and contain the burns.

California's Camp Fire in 2018, which destroyed the community of Paradise in Butte County, is believed to be the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least half a century.

"We are here during a time of grieving and loss," Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono said Saturday at a news conference. "As we recover, I hope you will tell the story of the resilience of this community," she told the reporters in attendance.

Reach Matthias Gafni: [email protected]


(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle

Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!