Burning embers and toxic particles complicate search for bodies in Hawaii fire

Authorities warn the death toll from the wildfire, which has become the deadliest in U.S. modern history, will continue to rise

Hawaii fire
Two people examine the remains of houses burned by the fire that has destroyed the historic city of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui.Sandy Hooper (via REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

It is now the deadliest wildfire the United States has seen in more than a century. And all signs indicate that the number of victims will continue to rise. Residents of the Hawaiian island of Maui on Monday were trying to come to terms with the scale of the disaster, which has killed nearly a hundred people, left hundreds missing and thousands more homeless in the city of Lahaina, which was consumed by the fire. The search for bodies has been complicated by the smoldering rubble and the possible toxic particles in the water, air and surfaces. This too has posed a challenge for locals seeking to return to collect the few belongings that may have survived the blaze.

“We only have 3% of the search done, and they want to be meticulous and do it right. So right now they’re going street by street and block by block, they’re doing cars, and soon they’ll start to enter buildings,” Jeff Hickman, a spokesperson for Hawaii’s Department of Defense, said on NBC’s TODAY on Monday.

In the last hours, new equipment and cadaver dogs have been sent from other parts of the United States. “So the efforts are going to start to move a little faster than they have the past couple days, and hopefully, we bring some closure to those on Maui,” said Hickman.

The historic center of Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was razed to rubble after the fire consumed the city of 12,000 (the island of Maui is home to 170,000 residents) in just four hours last Tuesday, devouring wood and melting metal. A week has since passed, but the embers are still burning.

“For the first few days, we had done searches of the streets and the cars in the area, but we couldn’t enter any structures,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier told NBC. “My police officers are trained to go chase bad guys, respond to robberies, take reports. But they are not trained to enter smoldering structures to go look for human remains.”

The search teams have been confronted with “overwhelming” scenes, warned the governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, in a video on his Instagram account. He added that “there is hardly anything left” of Lahaina, which until last Tuesday was a quaint port with lush greenery and an important center of Hawaiian culture that attracted many tourists.

Incendios Hawai
A resident looks around a charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 12, 2023. YUKI IWAMURA (AFP)

Green said that the current death toll stands at 99, and warned the number is likely to rise in the coming days.

While the search for bodies continues, Hawaiian authorities and the U.S. federal authorities have begun focusing on the thousands of people left homeless and restoring power and cell phone coverage that were down for days in West Maui, where Lahaina is located.

Although some residents have begun to return to their old neighborhoods to salvage what they can, authorities warned that it is still dangerous to move around the area. The team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is still assessing possible dangers.

“It is not safe. It is a hazardous area and that’s why experts are here,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a news conference Saturday. “We’re not doing anybody any favors by letting them back in there quickly, just so they can get sick.”

Hawaii’s state toxicologist Diana Felton told Hawaii Public Radio that cleaning up the pollutants could take weeks or even months. Over the next 15 days, the most obvious hazards, such as propane tanks, will be removed. But cleaning up the ash and debris will require more time.

“These areas should be approached very carefully, very cautiously,” Felton said. The old wooden houses that made up most of the old town could contain asbestos or lead paint. Given the island was once home to large pineapple and sugarcane plantations, there may also be arsenic among the remains, as it was used as a herbicide in the 20th century. “You don’t really want to be exposed to any of this stuff,” Felton said.

Experts warn that these toxic substances and others could also be found in drinking water or even in the air, which makes rebuilding the tourism-dependent island more difficult. Maui authorities have advised residents in Lahaina and Kula, another town affected by the fires in the south, not to drink tap or even boiled water. They have also recommended residents only take short showers, at warm temperatures, in well-ventilated areas.

For now, the Hawaiian government is working on housing locals displaced by the fires. Governor Green said that 500 hotel rooms will be made available for residents, and promised that number will rise in the coming days. The more than 15,000 tourists who were on Maui fled the island when the blaze broke out.

Green also announced the launch of an investigation to determine whether there were failures in the initial response to the fires. Residents said that the warning sirens that should have warned of the danger never sounded. While alerts were sent to cell phones and broadcast over radio and TV, by then, many people had lost coverage and power.

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