The official death toll in Hawaii’s wildfires has now risen to 99, according to the state’s governor on 14 August. Last week’s inferno on the island of Maui is already the deadliest US wildfire in a century. Still, only a quarter of the ruins of the devastated town of Lahaina have been searched for victims so far.
Governor Josh Green said more fatalities are certain, as emergency responders with cadaver dogs work their way through hundreds of homes and burned-out vehicles.
Speaking of the death toll to CNN, Green warned that:
over the course of the next 10 days, this number could double.
Wildfire sweeps Lahaina
The historic coastal town of Lahaina was almost totally destroyed by the fast-moving blaze last week. Survivors are saying there had been no warnings.
The intensity of the fire and scale of the destruction have made identification of human remains difficult. Some corpses have disintegrated as they were uncovered by searchers.
Only three of the 99 victims recovered so far could be identified by their fingerprints, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier. He also added that around 25% of Lahaina had been searched, with that expected to rise to 90% by this weekend.
Jeremy Greenberg, a Federal Emergency Management Agency director, said search conditions were:
extraordinarily difficult to work through.
Officials warned of the dangers of unstable buildings and potential airborne toxic chemicals in the area.
Around 1,300 people remain unaccounted for, although delays restoring cell phone communications have made it difficult for residents who fled to reconnect.
Green told CBS:
“Our hearts will break beyond repair, perhaps, if that means that many more dead. None of us think that, but we are prepared for many tragic stories.
The wildfire is the deadliest in the United States since 1918, when 453 people died in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association.
Questions are being asked about authorities’ preparedness and response to the catastrophe. In particular, some fire hydrants ran dry in the early stages of the wildfire.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Hawaiian Electric, the state’s biggest power firm. The suit is claiming the company:
inexcusably kept their power lines energized during forecasted high fire danger conditions.
Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said the company does not shut off power during fire conditions, in part as electricity is needed for water pumps.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Whatever sparked the terrifying inferno, a collision of circumstances – including a churning hurricane off the coast – meant that it spread very quickly.
Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis. These prevented many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their cell phones.
No sirens sounded. Many people in Lahaina learned about the blaze from neighbors running down the street or seeing it for themselves.
Attempts to allow residents back into Lahaina descended into chaos on Monday 14 August. A placard system identifying those permitted to travel was suspended after barely an hour.
Maui’s fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer. Record-breaking wildfires are still burning across Canada, and a major heatwave is baking the US Southwest.
Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc.
Scientists say human-caused global warming is exacerbating natural hazards, making them both more likely and more deadly.
In Lahaina, a few thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed as the fire tore through the town. According to official estimates, this has caused more than $5bn in damage.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Al Jazeera/ screengrab