By CLAIRE RUSH, AUDREY MACAVOY and CHRISTOPHER WEBER (Associated Press)
LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Hawaii officials urged tourists to avoid traveling to Maui as many hotels prepared to house evacuees and first responders on the island that faces a long recovery from the wildfire that demolished a historic town and killed more than 90 people.
About 46,000 residents and visitors have flown out of Kahului Airport in West Maui since the devastation in Lahaina became clear Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“In the weeks ahead, the collective resources and attention of the federal, state and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” the agency said in a statement late Saturday. Tourists are encouraged to visit Hawaii’s other islands.
Gov. Josh Green said 500 hotels rooms will be made available for locals who have been displaced. An additional 500 hotel rooms will be set aside for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some hotels will carry on with normal business to help preserve jobs and sustain the local economy, Green said.
The state wants to work with AirBNB to make sure that rental homes can be made available for locals. Green hopes that the company will be able to provide three- to nine-month rentals for those who have lost homes.
As the death toll around Lahaina climbed to 93, authorities warned that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. The blaze is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
Crews with cadaver dogs have covered just 3% of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.
“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles, and it is full of our loved ones,” he said, noting that the number of dead is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”
He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through the ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange “X” to indicate an initial search, and “HR” when they found human remains.
Lylas Kanemoto is awaiting word about the fate of her cousin, Glen Yoshino.
“I’m afraid he is gone because we have not heard from him, and he would’ve found a way to contact family. We are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst,” Kanemoto said Sunday. Family members will submit DNA to help identify any remains.
The family was grieving the death of four other relatives. The remains of Faaso and Malui Fonua Tone, their daughter, Salote Takafua, and her son, Tony Takafua, were found inside a charred car.
“At least we have closure for them, but the loss and heartbreak is unbearable for many,” Kanemoto said.
During the search efforts, the barks of cadaver dogs alerting their handlers to potential remains echoed over the hot, colorless landscape.
“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Green said as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”
At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, nearly all of them residential. Across the island, damage was estimated at close to $6 billion.
At least two other fires have been burning on Maui: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. No fatalities have been reported from those blazes.
The Upcountry fire affected 544 structures, most of them homes, Green said.
As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.
The latest death toll surpassed that of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.
The cause of the wildfires is under investigation. The fires are Hawaii’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 development of a territory-wide emergency alert system with sirens that are tested monthly.
Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate that the warning sirens sounded before fire hit the town. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.
“It outpaced anything firefighters could have done in the early hours,” U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said.
The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes.
Maui water officials warned Lahaina and Kula residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapor exposure.
Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.
Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are no more than 65 county firefighters working at any given time, who are responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
Lahaina resident Riley Curran said he doubted that county officials could have done more, given the speed of the flames. He fled his Front Street home after seeing the oncoming fire from the roof of a neighboring building.
“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”
More than a dozen volunteers formed an assembly line on Kaanapali Beach Saturday to unload water, toiletries, batteries and other essentials from a catamaran that sailed from another part of Maui.
Caitlin McKnight, who also volunteered at an emergency shelter at the island’s war memorial, said she tried to be strong for those who lost everything.
“It was evident that those people, those families, people of the Maui ohana, they went through a traumatic event,” McKnight said, using a Hawaiian word for family. “You could just see it in their face.”
Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu; Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Andrew Selsky in Bend, Oregon; Bobby Caina Calvan and Beatrice Dupuy in New York; Ty O’Neil in Lahaina, Hawaii; Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Connecticut; and Lisa J. Adams Wagner in Evans, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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