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Hawaii's governor orders review as Maui fires become deadliest in modern U.S. history

Davilynn Severson and Hano Ganer look for belongings through the ashes of their family's home on Friday in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, in western Maui, Hawaii.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
Davilynn Severson and Hano Ganer look for belongings through the ashes of their family's home on Friday in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, in western Maui, Hawaii.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said he has ordered a comprehensive review to understand the actions taken before, during and after last week's wildfires on Maui.

In a 9-minute audioreleased on Sunday, the governor said more than 2,700 structures were destroyed in and around the historic town of Lahaina. The death toll rose to at least 96 late Sunday, according to Maui County officials, but Green said he expects the number to rise. He said 35 additional members of an Urban Search and Rescue team are arriving - along with 20 dogs to help pick through the rubble.

In ordering the review, Green said, "There is a lot to share. There is a lot of information that people want. And to that end, I've authorized a comprehensive review of what happened in the early hours of the fire and hours thereafter."

"We will build back together. We will find out what we could have done to prevent such loss of life to the best of our ability."

"This is a big mission which will go on for many months and many years," he said.

Green also gave new details about the fires that burned on Maui last Tuesday. He said one fire was deemed out - but "must not have been completely extinguished." He said wind gusts were reported as high as 81 mph. The fire spread rapidly - traveling one mile every minute. He said combined with those winds and the 1,000-degree temperatures, "ultimately all the pictures you see will be easy to understand."

Green added, "that level of destruction in a fire hurricane - something new to us in this age of global warming - was the ultimate reason that so many people perished."

He did not address evacuation plans or why emergency sirens did not sound.

The devastating wildfire that tore through parts of Maui and destroyed much of Lahaina is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Green said over the weekend that hundreds of people were still unaccounted for and he expected the number of dead to increase.

"We want to brace people for that," Green said. The governor added that the road to recovery would be a long one. "It's going to be, in the short term, heartbreaking," Green said. "In the long term, people are going to need mental health care services. In the very long term we'll rebuild together."

Federal officials have provided search dogs to help assist efforts to recover fire victims, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.

"We need to identify your loved ones," Pelletier said.

Up to 4,500 displaced people are in need of shelter, according to a Maui County Facebook post citing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Damage across Maui is estimated to be close to $6 billion, Green said.

Firefighting efforts continue

Firefighting crews continue to work on extinguishing flare-ups in the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires, according to a County of Maui update on Saturday.

As of Friday night, the fire that tore through Lahaina had been 85% contained, according to County of Maui officials.

Containmentdoes not necessarily mean a fire is not raging on. Rather, it refers to the perimeter that fire crews were able to create around the fire to keep it from spreading. That means, even if a fire is 100% contained, it could still be burning.

The Lahaina Fire in West Maui is estimated to have burned 2,170 acres and damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures. About 86% of the buildings that were exposed to the fire were residential, the Pacific Disaster Center said on Saturday.
In Ka'anapali, also in West Maui, a small fire that was sparked on Friday and forced mass evacuations has been completely contained. But the brief flames disrupted plans to distribute fuel on Saturday that had been stored in the area, local officials said. On Saturday evening, officials said the fire had been extinguished.

Meanwhile, in South Maui, the blaze scorching Pulehu was declared 100% contained.

On Friday, Attorney General Anne Lopez announcedthat her department will be conducting a review of decisions made leading up to, during and after the historic wildfires. The inquiry comes amid accusations from some residents that there were no warning sirens on Tuesday ahead of the fires, failing to give them enough time to prepare.

Much of the western part of Maui remains without power — jeopardizing the food in people's refrigerators. Local officials have also warned against drinking tap water — even if it is boiled — due to possible contamination from the fires.

Though some cell service has been restored, authorities have also asked residents to text rather than talk over the phone because of severely limited bandwidth.

Access into West Maui has also been restricted, though the highway for vehicles leaving Lahaina remains open. Lahaina remains barricaded, with authorities warning people to stay out of the area due to toxic airborne particles. Officials also advise people nearby to wear masks and gloves.

More than 1,400 people remain in evacuation shelters on the island. A family assistance center is open this weekend in the city of Kahului for those looking for information about loved ones who are still unaccounted for.

About 1,000 people are missing, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier estimated on Thursday, though he cautioned that "honestly we don't know."

The death toll from the Maui fires surpasses the 85 people who were killed in the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California. A fire that raged through northern Minnesota in 1918 killed hundreds.

NPR's Jason DeRose, Lauren Sommer and Don Clyde contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.