More than 100 people have been killed in the wildfires sweeping Hawaii, the deadliest wildfire incident in the US for more than 100 years.
Federal officials sent a mobile morgue with coroners, pathologists and technicians to the islands to help identify the dead, as Maui County released the first names of people killed in the wildfire.
Just two victims have been named so far, while the county said it has identified three more and will release the names after notifying the next of kin.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult mission,” US Department of Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary Jonathan Greene said. “And patience will be incredibly important because of the number of victims.”
State senator Brian Schatz said the historic town of Lahaina, which dates back to the 1700s, is almost totally burnt to the ground, with the blaze leaving behind smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings once stood.
Maui County officials said that tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the island by air, with dozens of people injured in addition to those killed. Meanwhile, the grim search for survivors continues.
The fires were whipped up by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It is the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say the climate crisis is increasing the likelihood of such events taking place.
Lahaina resident Mason Jarvi, who escaped from the town, said the fires were like the “apocalypse”, adding: "We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp.”
“This is a deeply somber day,” Maui mayor Richard Bissen said on Wednesday. “The gravity of losing any life is tragic. As we grieve with their families, we offer prayers for comfort in this inconsolable time.”
Adding to the problems on the ground are the growing reports of looting and a spate of armed robberies in Lahaina, with local business owners imploring law enforcement to get a grip on the situation.
Authorities have meanwhile warned that the effort to find and identify victims is still in its early stages, with crews and cadaver dogs having covered just three per cent of the search area as of Saturday.
In better news, the Hawaiian Electric Company reported on Tuesday that it had restored power to all but 2,000 of the 12,400 customers who lost power on West Maui. “Power was restored to the Lahaina Civic Center and nearby areas. HECO has 400 employees from across the state working on power restoration and shipped 26 specialized vehicles and equipment to Maui from Oahu,” officials said.
Where are the current wildfires in Hawaii?
The map below shows the areas currently affected by the wildfires.
When flames first raged across Maui last week, some adults and children were forced to dive into the ocean for safety.
Video shows locals leaping into the Pacific as flames spread to the harbour.
“We had to push off to escape the heat and ash. The harbour quickly filled with black smoke. We made it safe to Lanai,” said Brantin Stevens, who shot some of the footage from the scene.
According to Hawaii Department of Transportation director Ed Sniffen, more than 11,000 people were flown out of Maui on Wednesday 9 August. Another 14,000 followed a day later.
Incredibly, holidaymakers and some celebrities including the hotel heiress Paris Hilton have attempted to press on with their summer plans to visit Hawaii, inviting stern rebukes from local officials and condemnation on social media.
What is fuelling the wildfires?
Precisely what first started the fires has not yet been established but it is believed that their spread was greatly exacerbated by the heavy winds coming in from Dora lying several hundred miles off the islands’ south coast.
According to the National Weather Service, winds reached speeds of up to 60 mph at one stage.
Robert Bohlin, a meteorologist at the service’s office in Honolulu, told The New York Times that while the hurricane was not directly responsible for the worsening conditions in the island state, it has made the winds stronger in the area.
Also enabling the disaster has been the unchecked spread of non-native dry vegetation like Guinea grass across Hawaii in recent decades, which has been allowed to populate former agricultural land and deforested sites and has unwittingly provided the ideal fuel to feed the blaze.
Claims by excessively-online conspiracy theorists that a “space laser” is to blame are wide of the mark.
Additional reporting from agencies.
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