Hawaii wildfires: Death toll rises to 80 as 1,000 feared missing

Words by Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer

At least 80 people have been killed after "catastrophic" wildfires devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, with another 1,000 feared missing.

The death toll rose on Friday, reaching a grim milestone which confirmed the wildfires as the deadliest natural disaster in the island state's history.

Touring the historic town of Lahaina on Thursday,, Governor Josh Green said it has been a "heartbreaking day" and the devastation has been "catastrophic".

The town has been razed by fire and will take many years to rebuild, he said, adding: "When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina it will shock you. It does appear like a bomb went off and all of those buildings virtually are going to have to be rebuilt."

ITV News correspondent Peter Smith reports live from the devastated community of Kula, on the island of Maui

Residents have started returning to their neighbourhoods to find blackened hulks of burned-out cars, the pavement streaked with melted and then rehardened chrome.

They were met with incinerated telephone poles and elevator shafts rising from ashy lots where apartment buildings once stood, while a truck bed was full of glass bottles, warped into surreal shapes by the blistering heat.

There are fears that up to 1,000 people could be missing, but Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said it was difficult to determine an exact number.

Burned-out cars sit after a wildfire raged through Lahaina. Credit: AP

"Here's the challenge: there's no power. There's no internet. There's no radio coverage," he said.

As the inferno engulfed Lahiana, locals were forced to jump into the ocean to escape the smoke and the flames. The Coast Guard rescued 14 people, including two children, from the water.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui and pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”

Search and rescue teams from California and Washington state, which are trained in disaster skills including using dogs to find human remains, have been deployed to Maui to assist with the process.

Melted beer bottles are shown in the back of a burnt out truck following the wildfires. Credit: AP

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said: “We have to respect that we have loved ones in that earth and we have to get them out,” adding that his officers are trained to catch “bad guys” and not specifically to pull bodies from buildings.

Approximately 30,000 people have been moved off the island since Wednesday, according to the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

The state is now scrambling to find 2,000 rooms for thousands of displaced residents. Those with spare rooms or rental properties have been asked to come forward.

On Thursday nearly 11,000 people across Maui are without power, according to poweroutage.us.

The official death toll makes this the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people.

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina was engulfed in flames. Credit: AP

'I've got nothing left': Survivors share how they escaped the flames

Residents have since asked why Hawaii’s famous emergency warning system didn’t alert them as fires raced toward their homes.

The state has what it describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain.

But many of Lahaina’s survivors said in interviews at evacuation centres that they didn’t hear any sirens and only realised they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

Myrna Ah Hee lost her home. She was searching for her husband's brother on Thursday at the evacuation centre at the War Memorial Gymnasium. Credit: AP

Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired postman from Lahaina, didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke.

Power and mobile phone service had both gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.

He tried to leave in his Jeep, but had to abandon the car and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a seawall for four hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.

He was later rescued by firefighters alongside other survivors.

“I've got nothing left... I’m a disabled vet, so now I’m a homeless vet,” he added with a small laugh.

Thomas Leonard lies on an air mattress at an evacuation centre Credit: AP

Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old chef, said that when he heard fire alarms it was already too late to flee to his car.

“I opened the door, and the fire was almost on top of us," he said from an evacuation centre at a gym. “We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day, because the fire didn’t stop."

Vasquez and his brother Eduardo escaped via roads that were clogged with vehicles full of people. The smoke was so toxic that he vomited.

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,” she 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.”

Lahaina local Bosco Bae posted video on Facebook from Tuesday night that showed fire burning nearly every building on a street as sirens blared and windblown sparks flew by.

Footage captured by Bosco Bae, who said he was one of the last people out of Lahaina, shows buildings on fire and sparks flying through the air

Hale Mahaolu, an assisted living facility, is among the buildings that caught fire.

Chelsey Vierra's great-grandmother, Louise Abihai, was living at Hale Mahaolu, and the family doesn't know if she got out. “She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,” Vierra said on Thursday. “She can walk. She is strong.”

Relatives are monitoring shelter lists and calling the hospital. “We got to find our loved one, but there’s no communication here,” she added.

Many families off the island are still waiting to hear from their loved ones.

Amongst the more than 1,000 buildings that have been destroyed include Fleetwood Mac co-founder Mick Fleetwood's restaurant. Fleetwood has lived on Maui for several decades and shared his "heartfelt thoughts and prayers with the people of Maui".

Lahaina business owner Tiffany Kidder Winn becomes emotional as she speaks of Lahaina

What made the fires so difficult to tackle for firefighters?

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain, was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph that fanned the flames and knocked out power.

The high winds, combined with dry conditions and low humidity, added fuel to the wildfires.

The winds also stopped helicopters from fighting the fire from above.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association.

There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in Maui County, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands - Maui, Molokai and Lanai - he said.

Fire and smoke filled the sky in Maui Credit: County of Maui via AP

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they are all designed for on-road use. The department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said.

That means fire crews can't attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Lee said. The high winds caused by Hurricane Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.

“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said.

Downed power poles on two main roads out of Lahaina also added to the chaos as people attempted to flee.

Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said 29 poles fell with live wires still attached, cutting off the roads to nearby towns and the airport.

An aerial photo of Maui shows the wreckage left in the wake of the wildfires. Credit: AP

Is this the state's deadliest disaster?

With the death toll exceeding 61 - these wildfires are the largest natural disaster in Hawaii's history.

In 1960, 61 people were killed after a tsunami struck the Big Island.

The Hawaii toll could still rise as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been inaccessible due to the three ongoing fires, including the one in Lahaina that was 80% contained on Thursday, according to a Maui County news release.

The fires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south.

“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Search and rescue teams still won't be able to reach certain areas until the fire lines are secure and access is safe, Weintraub added.

The president's major disaster declaration makes federal funding available to those affected by the wildfires. It can go towards grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

It's the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

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