New fire prompts evacuation as survivors of Maui’s wildfires return after death toll rises to 67
Aug 11, 2023, 6:00 PM | Updated: 11:00 pm
LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — A new fire burning on the Hawaii island of Maui on Friday night triggered the evacuation of a community to the northeast of the area that burned earlier this week, police said.
The fire prompted the evacuation of people in Kaanapali in West Maui, the Maui Police Department announced on social media. No details of the evacuation were immediately provided.
Traffic was halted earlier after some people went over barricaded, closed-off areas of the disaster zone and “entered restricted, dangerous, active investigation scenes,” police said.
The number of confirmed deaths from the Maui wildfires this week has increased to 67.
Maui residents had already started returning to their neighborhoods to find blackened hulks of burned-out cars, the pavement streaked with melted and then rehardened chrome. Block after block of flattened homes and businesses. Incinerated telephone poles, and elevator shafts rising from ashy lots where apartment buildings once stood. A truck bed full of glass bottles, warped into surreal shapes by the furious heat.
Anthony Garcia assessed the devastation as he stood under historic Lahaina’s iconic banyan tree, now charred, and swept twisted branches into neat piles next to another heap filled with dead animals — cats, roosters and other birds killed by the smoke and flames. Somehow it made sense in a world turned upside-down.
“If I don’t do something, I’ll go nuts,” said Garcia, who lost everything he owned. “I’m losing my faith in God.”
That was the scene residents found when they were allowed back home to take stock of their shattered homes and lives. The fire tore through parts of Maui and were still short of full containment and being battled by firefighters.
Attorney General Anne Lopez’s office announced it will conduct a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires.
“My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said in a statement. “As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”
Associated Press journalists also witnessed the devastation, with nearly every building destroyed on Front Street, the heart of Lahaina and the economic hub of the island. Surviving roosters, which are known to roam Hawaii streets, meandered through the ashes, and there was an eerie traffic jam of charred cars that didn’t escape the inferno.
“It hit so quick, it was incredible,” resident Kyle Scharnhorst said as he surveyed his apartment complex’s damage in the morning. “It was like a war zone.”
The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted the development of the territory-wide emergency system that includes sirens, which are sounded monthly to test their readiness.
But many fire survivors said in interviews that they didn’t hear any sirens or receive a warning that gave them enough time to prepare, realizing they were in danger only when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.
“There was no warning. There was absolutely none. Nobody came around. We didn’t see a fire truck or anybody,” said Lynn Robinson, who lost her home.
Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people had to run for their lives. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations — but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
Gov. Josh Green warned that the death toll would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue. Authorities set a curfew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Saturday.
“The recovery’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely, because it’s pretty dangerous,” Green told Hawaii News Now.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, at least three wildfires erupted on Maui this week, racing through parched brush covering the island.
The most serious one swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and left it a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes. Skeletal remains of buildings bowed under roofs that pancaked in the blaze. Palm trees were torched, boats in the harbor were scorched and the stench of burning lingered.
The wildfire is already projected to be the second-costliest disaster in Hawaii history, behind only Hurricane Iniki in 1992, according to calculations by Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company.
Summer and Gilles Gerling sought to salvage keepsakes from the ashes of their home. But all they could find was the piggy bank Summer Gerling’s father gave her as a child, their daughter’s jade bracelet and the watches they gifted each other for their wedding.
Their wedding rings were gone.
They described their fear as the strong wind whipped the smoke and flames closer. But they said they were just happy that they and their two children made it out alive.
“It is what it is,” Gilles Gerling said. “Safety was the main concern. These are all material things.”
Cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought in to assist the search for the dead, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said.
The wildfire is the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.
Lahaina’s wildfire risk is well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.
The report also noted that West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.
“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.
Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in the county, and they are responsible for three islands — Maui, Molokai and Lanai — he said.
Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but the department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said. That means crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas.
Maui water officials warned residents in Kula and Lahaina who have running water that it may be contaminated and they should not drink it — even after boiling — and should take only short, lukewarm showers “in a well-ventilated room” to avoid exposure to possible chemical vapors.
But Andrew Whelton, an engineering professor at Purdue University whose team was called in after the Camp Fire and the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado, said “showering in water that potentially contains hazardous waste levels of benzene is not advisable” and a do-not-use order would be appropriate until sampling and analysis have been done.
When she fled Tuesday, Lahaina resident Lana Vierra thought it would be temporary. She spent Friday morning filling out FEMA assistance forms at a relative’s house in Haiku.
Though she knew the home where she raised five children was gone, along with treasured items like baby pictures and yearbooks, she was eager to return.
“To actually stand there on your burnt grounds and get your wheels turning on how to move forward — I think it will give families that peace,” she said.
Riley Curran said he fled his home on Front Street after climbing up a neighboring apartment building to get a better look at the onrushing fire. He doubts county officials could have done more to stave off disaster, because it happened so fast.
“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything. … The fire went from 0 to 100,” Curran said.
Curran added that he grew up in California and has seen horrendous wildfires, but “I’ve never seen one eat an entire town in four hours.”
Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Andrew Selsky in Bend, Oregon; Bobby Caina Calvan and Beatrice Dupuy in New York; Chris Megerian in Salt Lake City; Audrey McAvoy in Wailuku, Hawaii; Ada;m Beam in Sacramento, California; and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed.
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