Devastating Wildfire Strikes Maui, Hawaii

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LAHAINA, HAWAII — A relentless wildfire that surged through an idyllic town on Maui, Hawaii’s island, this week has claimed the lives of at least 89 individuals, authorities confirmed on Saturday, establishing it as the most fatal wildfire in the United States within the last century.

The newly disclosed toll now surpasses the tragedy of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which claimed 85 lives and obliterated the town of Paradise. One hundred years earlier, in 1918, the Cloquet Fire ignited in drought-stricken northern Minnesota, swiftly engulfing numerous rural communities, causing the loss of thousands of homes, and resulting in hundreds of fatalities.

At present, two separate fires are burning on Maui, with no reported casualties so far: one in Kihei, located in the south of Maui, and the other within the mountainous inland regions known as Upcountry. A fourth fire ignited on Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal enclave in West Maui north of Lahaina, yet emergency crews successfully extinguished it, as stated by authorities.

This updated death count emerged on Saturday as federal emergency responders, equipped with axes and cadaver dogs, combed through the aftermath of the inferno, designating homes in ruins with a conspicuous orange X during the initial search, and marking them with “HR” upon discovering human remains.

Canines diligently scoured the wreckage, and their occasional barking—used to alert handlers to the presence of possible bodies—echoed through the scorching and desolate landscape.

The firestorm that tore through the ancient town of Lahaina on the western coast of Maui four days prior incinerated hundreds of residences, transforming a once-vibrant tropical setting into a desolate ash-covered terrain. The state’s governor, Josh Green, predicted that the number of fatalities would increase.

During his tour of the devastation along historic Front Street, Governor Green remarked on Saturday, “The toll is likely to rise. This will undoubtedly stand as the most severe natural disaster Hawaii has ever encountered. Our current focus is to aid those who have survived—to reunite them, provide shelter, healthcare, and then embark on the process of rebuilding.”

Among those who managed to escape, a sense of gratitude prevailed for their survival, mingled with grief for those who were not as fortunate.

Geoff Bogar, a retired fire captain, and his close friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially remained behind in Lahaina to assist fellow residents and safeguard Bogar’s home. However, as the advancing flames drew nearer on Tuesday afternoon, they realized they had to evacuate. Each fled in their own vehicle. When Bogar’s car failed to start, he broke a window to escape and crawled on the ground until a passing police patrol found him and transported him to a hospital.

Trejos, however, was not as fortunate. When Bogar returned the following day, he discovered the remains of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, positioned atop the remains of the Bogars’ cherished 3-year-old golden retriever named Sam, whom Trejos had tried to protect.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had shared his life with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, assisting her with seizures when her husband couldn’t. He brought love and laughter into their lives.

Weber-Bogar lamented, “A truly good man was taken away by God.”

Bill Wyland, an Oahu resident and owner of an art gallery on historic Front Street in Lahaina, fled the flames on his Harley Davidson, deftly maneuvering the motorcycle onto deserted sidewalks on Tuesday to avoid the congested roads, as burning embers singed the hair on the back of his neck.

Navigating through winds he estimated to be at least 112 kph, he encountered a bicyclist pedaling frantically for his life.

“It’s the kind of scene you’d expect in a Twilight Zone episode or a horror movie,” Wyland remarked.

Upon returning to downtown Lahaina on Thursday, Wyland comprehended the extent of his fortunate escape.

He recounted, “Seeing all the charred vehicles was heart-wrenching. There was nothing left standing.”

His gallery lay in ruins, along with the works of 30 artists.

In Maui, emergency management authorities grappled with finding accommodations for the displaced individuals. Up to 4,500 people are in need of shelter, as per county officials who posted on Facebook early Saturday, relying on data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Aerial surveys conducted by the Civil Air Patrol recorded a staggering 1,692 structures destroyed, the vast majority of them being residential. Sonar technology determined that nine boats had sunk in Lahaina Harbor.

These wildfires stand as Hawaii’s deadliest natural catastrophe in decades, surpassing the toll of a 1960 tsunami that claimed 61 lives. An even more catastrophic tsunami in 1946, responsible for the deaths of over 150 individuals on the Big Island, prompted the establishment of a territory-wide emergency alert system featuring monthly siren tests.

Curiously, Hawaii’s emergency management records do not indicate any sounding of warning sirens before the fire engulfed the town. Although officials disseminated alerts through mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations, the widespread power outages and disrupted cellular networks may have limited their reach.

Fueled by a dry summer and potent winds arising from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui swept through arid brush that blanketed the island.

The most severe blaze infiltrated Lahaina on Tuesday, decimating nearly every structure in the 13,000-person town, and leaving behind a stark landscape of gray debris nestled between the azure ocean and luxuriant green slopes.

By Saturday morning, the heart of the historic downtown, Front Street, stood eerily devoid of its usual activity. An Associated Press journalist encountered a barefoot local clutching a laptop and a passport, who inquired about the nearest shelter. Another individual, cycling through the area, assessed the damage at the harbor, where he revealed that his boat had caught fire and subsequently sank.

Later that day, search teams dispersed under the scorching Maui sun, diligently seeking human remains. Armed with axes and tools to clear debris, they worked alongside cadaver dogs, which took respite in small pools of water before resuming their tasks. One dog methodically searched a standing strip mall, moving from business to business, while another roamed the street with its handler.

Concerns about water contamination emerged, leading Maui’s water authorities to caution Lahaina and Kula residents against consuming running water, as boiling alone may not ensure safety. In addition, they advised residents to take brief, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated spaces to minimize potential exposure to chemical vapors.

Forecasts predict that this wildfire will rank as the second-costliest disaster in Hawaii’s history, trailing behind only Hurricane Iniki in 1992, according to the disaster and risk modeling firm Karen Clark & Company.

The vulnerability of Maui to such a disaster was already recognized. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, updated in 2020, highlighted Lahaina and other West Maui communities as areas prone to frequent wildfires, with several structures at risk. The report also highlighted West Maui’s elevated rate of households without vehicles and its highest rate of non-English speakers on the island.

“The population’s ability to receive, comprehend, and promptly respond during hazardous situations may be limited by these factors,” the plan stated.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may have

been hindered by a shortage of personnel and equipment.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, noted that there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters on duty at any given time, responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai, and Lanai.

Riley Curran, who escaped from his Front Street home after scaling a nearby building for a better vantage point, doubted that county officials could have done much more, given the speed at which the flames advanced.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran asserted. “The fire went from zero to a hundred.”

Curran, who grew up in California, had witnessed devastating wildfires before.

However, he added, “I’ve never seen one devour an entire town in just four hours.”

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