Hawaii starts probe into wildfire handling, as toll hits 80

By Reuters   August 12, 2023 | 12:51 am PT
Hawaii starts probe into wildfire handling, as toll hits 80
A view of burned debris after wildfires devastated the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 10, 2023. Photo by Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources/Handout via Reuters
Hawaii's chief legal officer said Friday she was opening a probe into the handling of devastating wildfires that killed at least 80 people in the state this week, as criticism grows of the official response.

The announcement and increased death toll came as residents of Lahaina were allowed back into the town for the first time -- with most finding their homes had been reduced to ashes, and even the lucky few angry at a sense of abandonment.

"Everything has been coconut wire," said William Harry, referring to a system of rumors.

"One person heard, then told another, but it's not official information. They don't come here and explain anything."

Another man, who did not want to be named, told AFP he felt like he had been left to fend for himself.

"Where is the government? Where are they?" he fumed.

"This is insane. We can't move freely, we don't get the support, now we've heard about looting."

Hawaii's Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would be examining "critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawai'i islands this week."

"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."

Late Friday, Maui county officials gave an updated death toll from the disaster.

"The number of fatalities is at 80," the county said, adding that 1,418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters.


For some of those who made it back into Lahaina, there was elation as they tearfully reconnected with neighbors they feared might not have got out alive.

"You made it!" cried Chyna Cho, as she embraced Amber Langdon amid the ruins. "I was trying to find you."

For some of the luckiest, there was joy -- albeit tempered by the scale of the tragedy that counts among the worst natural disasters to hit the state of Hawaii.

"I just couldn't believe it," Keith Todd told AFP after finding his home intact.

"I'm so grateful, but at the same time it's so devastating."

Todd, 64, discovered his house and his neighbor's house untouched, and his solar panels providing electricity to the fridge, which was still dispensing ice on demand.

But even those few whose homes still appeared habitable were being warned they might not be safe.

"Some structures in the Lahaina water system were destroyed by the fire... These conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), to enter the water system," said Maui's water department.

"As a precaution...(we) are advising residents to not use the tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice."

'It hurts'

Some of those who made it back to Lahaina wandered in stunned silence trying to take in the enormity of the destruction.

Anthony La Puente said the shock of finding his home burned to nothing was profound.

"It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with, or the things you remember," he told AFP of the house he had lived in for 16 years.

"The only thing I can say is that it hurts. It takes a toll on you emotionally," the 44-year-old said.

La Puente dug through the still warm ashes of his home, picking out a Starbucks tumbler that had survived, but despairing at the loss of irreplaceable things, like mementoes of his late father.

"I had packed up my dad's belongings" hoping to sort through them at some point, he said.

But that will never happen.

"Now it's gone."

Cadaver dogs

The number of people killed surpassed the count from when a tsunami struck the Big Island in 1960.

"Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities. We don't know ultimately how many will have occurred," Governor Josh Green said.

Crews from Honolulu arrived on Maui along with search and rescue teams equipped with K-9 cadaver dogs, Maui County said.

Firefighters were continuing to extinguish flare-ups and contain wildfires in Lahaina, with spot blazes evident to the AFP team in the town.

Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said Thursday that as many as 1,000 people could be unaccounted for, though he stressed that this did not mean they were missing or dead.

Communications in the western part of the island remain tricky, and Pelletier said many of those whose whereabouts were not known could simply be out of reach.

The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.

Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc.

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