Death toll from U.S. Hawaii wildfire rises to 80
Updated 19:38, 12-Aug-2023
A view of the charred remains after wildfires engulfed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 9, 2023. /Reuters
A view of the charred remains after wildfires engulfed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 9, 2023. /Reuters

A view of the charred remains after wildfires engulfed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S., August 9, 2023. /Reuters

The death toll from wildfires burning in the U.S. state of Hawaii has jumped to 80 as of 9 p.m. Friday, Maui County said in an updated notice late Friday.

The Lahaina fire that spread from the brush to town was still burning but 85 percent contained, the county said earlier. Two other wildfires on the island were 80 percent and 50 percent contained.

Firefighters continue working to extinguish flare-ups and contain fires in Lahaina, Pulehu/Kihei and Upcountry Maui, it added.

The fires became the deadliest natural disaster in the state's history, surpassing that of a tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960, a year after Hawaii joined the United States.

It also torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless, likely requiring many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.

The causes of the deadly fires, which started on Tuesday night, have not yet been determined.

'It's gone'

When Anthony La Puente made it back to the place he had called home for the last 16 years, there was almost nothing left.

His house, like most in Lahaina, had been razed by the wildfire that swept through this slice of Hawaiian paradise.

"The only thing I can say is that it hurts. It takes a toll on you emotionally," the 44-year-old said. "It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with, or the things you remember."

La Puente was one of dozens of people who were allowed back into what used to be Lahaina on Friday.

An AFP team that walked through the town on Friday found the blackened corpses of cats, birds and other animals caught in flames.

Electricity cables dangled uselessly from stricken poles, and small pockets of fire continued to burn.

Spray-painted, x-shaped icons marked the skeletal vehicles that lay in the street – a sign to firefighters they have been checked for victims.

All through the town, there were piles of still-warm ashes where family homes once stood.

"I had packed up my dad's belongings," hoping to sort through them at some point, La Puente said. "Now it's gone."

The silent siren

Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.

Many people told media that they received no official warnings about the blazes.

Hawaii Emergency Services Administration said on Friday that the warning sirens were not activated "on Maui during the wildfire incident," but alerts were sent by mobile devices, radio and television, and the opt-in resident alert system.

Widespread power and signal outages cut off most communication to the stricken area. It was not clear whether the alerts were sent before the island was hit with widespread outages.

Hawaii's siren system, known as the "All-hazard Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System," is used to warn residents about emergencies including earthquakes, tsunamis, brush fires, flooding, lava, or terrorist events, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

The system sounded mistakenly twice in recent years.

In 2018, the text message alert system falsely told the whole state to take cover for an incoming ballistic missile that did not exist.

In 2019, residents in Oahu and Maui were sent into a brief panic when the outdoor siren system was triggered during a training.

Regarding these complaints, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said Friday he could not say for certain if Maui's emergency siren system was activated properly ahead of the deadly wildfires.

Green told NBC News' Lester Holt on Friday that Lahaina is located in a "very remote place," and when the tragedy occurred, Hurricane Dora, as strong as 80 mph (128.75 kilometers per hour), knocked out telecommunications and essentially rendered the island dark.

(With input from agencies)

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