Hawaii wildfire: Uncertainty over death toll as search nears end

The Lahaina fire, which broke out on August 8, 2023, has been declared the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, claiming at least 115 lives and destroying more than 2,000 homes and businesses. The fire swept through the historic seaside community of Lahaina on Maui island, fueled by strong winds and dry vegetation. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

However, the exact death toll remains unclear, as authorities have not been able to account for all the missing persons. According to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, there are 110 missing persons reports filed with Maui police, and more than 50 of those remain open cases that are still actively being worked. He said some search activity continues in the ocean off Lahaina, where the FBI is searching 200 yards out along a four-mile stretch of coastline, but no human remains have been found.

Hawaii wildfire: Uncertainty over death toll as search nears end
Hawaii wildfire: Uncertainty over death toll as search nears end

He asked for “trust and patience” as officials continue to identify remains and go through lists of the missing. So far, authorities have identified and notified the loved ones of 45 of those killed. They have collected DNA from 120 people to identify the dead and continue to see more samples.

Search and recovery mission wraps up, hazardous waste removal begins

As the search and recovery mission nears its end, authorities are shifting the response to focus on removing hazardous waste and making the area safe for residents to begin returning. Darryl Oliveira, the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference that crews have “wrapped up almost completely the search and recovery mission and are moving into the next phase.”

The next phase would be hazardous waste removal conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he said. EPA teams will search for and remove by hand hazardous materials like paints, pesticides and batteries. Oliveira said this process could take up to two weeks, depending on the weather and the amount of debris.

He said residents who want to return to their properties will need to obtain a permit from the county and follow safety guidelines. He also warned that some areas may not be accessible due to damaged roads and bridges.

Lahaina residents cope with loss and trauma

The Lahaina fire has left a deep scar on the community, which is known for its historic buildings, cultural heritage and tourism industry. Many residents have lost their homes, belongings and loved ones in the blaze. Some have also suffered physical and emotional injuries.

The American Red Cross has been providing shelter, food, water and counseling to those affected by the fire. The organization said it has served more than 15,000 meals and snacks, distributed more than 3,000 relief items and provided more than 1,000 health and mental health contacts.

The Red Cross also said it has helped more than 500 families with immediate financial assistance and recovery planning. It has partnered with local agencies and organizations to offer additional support services, such as legal aid, insurance claims and housing assistance.

The Red Cross said it will continue to work with the community until its needs are met. It also urged people to donate blood, as blood supplies are low due to the fire and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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