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Maui wildfire death toll hits 55, recovery to take years

wildfires driven by high winds hit hawaiian island of maui
An aerial view shows the community of Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town, in Maui, Hawaii

Search teams on Maui on Friday will comb through the charred ruins of Lahaina looking for more victims of a wildfire that ripped through the Kingdom of Hawaii’s onetime capital, with officials expecting the death toll of 55 to rise.

The inferno, which erupted on Tuesday, reduced the picturesque resort town to piles of smoldering debris as it torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless in what was the worst natural disaster in the U.S. state’s history.

Cadaver dogs from California and Washington state will assist in the grim task of recovering human remains from the ruins on Friday as firefighters work to extinguish hot spots and smaller fires. The fire was 80 percent contained as of Thursday evening, officials said.

“Understand this: Lahaina Town is hallowed, sacred ground right now,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, referring to humans remains that have yet to be recovered. “We have to get them out.”

In addition to searching for those still missing, officials were drafting a plan to put the newly homeless up in hotels and tourist rental properties. The island currently has four shelters in operation for the displaced.

Authorities also were dealing with a widespread power and water issues across the community. As of Friday morning, some 11,000 homes and businesses remained without power, according to Poweroutage.us.

Witnesses to the conflagration that hit Lahaina spoke of their terror as the blaze consumed a town in what seemed to be minutes to many of them. Some escaped the racing flames by jumping into the Pacific Ocean.

Thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated from the western side of Maui, which has a year-round population of about 166,000, with some taking shelter on the island or on the neighboring island of Oahu. Tourists camped out in the Kahului Airport, waiting for flights back home.

Many more people suffered burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

“It was so hot all around me, I felt like my shirt was about to catch on fire,” Nicoangelo Knickerbocker, a 21-year-old resident of Lahaina, said from one of the four emergency shelters opened on the island.

Knickerbocker heard cars and a gas station explode, and soon after fled the town with his father, bringing with them only the clothes they were wearing and the family dog.

“It sounded like a war was going on,” he said.

Governor Josh Green said the scope of the disaster would surpass that of 1960, one year after Hawaii became a U.S. state, when a tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii.

“It’s going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina,” Green said at a news conference.

Lahaina’s 200-year-old Waiola Church was among the structures destroyed by the fire, local media reported. The landmark was the focal point of Christianity on Maui and the burial site of early members of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s royal family, according to the church’s website.

The fate of some of Lahaina’s other cultural treasures remains unclear. The historic 60-foot(18-meter)-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood was still standing, though some of its boughs appeared charred, according to a Reuters witness.

The Lahaina fire was one of three major wildfires on Maui, all of them still burning, that were fueled by dry conditions, a buildup of fuel and 60 mile-per-hour (100 km per hour) gusts of wind.

Winds were forecast to ease to 6 mph (9.7 kph) on Friday as firefighters were to work to secure the perimeter of the wild land areas that burned Maui County.

As of Thursday evening, the Lahaina fire was 80% contained, while the Pulehu fire, burning to the east, was 70% contained. There was no estimate for the Upcountry fire in the center of the eastern mass of the island, Maui County said.

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