Maui wildfire death toll hits 53, expected to rise, in Hawaii’s ‘largest natural disaster’

Firefighters continue to battle three wildfires in Maui that have left at least 53 people dead and the historic town of Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a smoldering ruin. The death count is “rising,” Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, local time. “It’s going to be horrible and tragic when we get that number.” The wildfires started Tuesday and Wednesday and spread with blazing speed, fueled by parched foliage and strong winds from a passing hurricane.

“We will continue to see loss of life,” Gov. Josh Green (D) said at the news conference, calling the Maui wildfires “likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history.” Rebuilding will cost billions of dollars. The previous worst disaster, a 1960 tsunami, killed 61 people, he said. “This time, it’s very likely that our death totals will significantly exceed that, I’m afraid.” It is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire since California’s Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.

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Photos and first-hand accounts of Lahaina on Thursday “revealed a wasteland of obliterated neighborhoods and landmarks charred beyond recognition,” The Associated Press reported. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) posted a video of the town’s 150-year-old Banyan tree, smoldering and damaged but “just about the only thing left, other than the Lighthouse,” and a photo of the remains of Front Street, the heart of the business district.

The destruction was so widespread Lahaina, “I couldn’t even tell where I was because all the landmarks were gone,” said Tiffany Kidder Winn, who owned Whaler’s Locker, one of Lahaina’s oldest shops. She said when she assessed the damage on Thursday she saw a dead body leaning against the seawall and lines of burned out vehicles, some with charred corpses inside. “It looked like they were trying to get out, but were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get off Front Street,” she told AP.

President Biden declared a major disaster in Maui on Thursday. “Anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately,” he said in Utah. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said 11,000 people in western Maui were without power, and there was no cellphone or landlines service, hampering efforts to account for missing people.

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