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99 dead from Maui wildfires; officials struggling to identify remains

Officials increased the death toll from Maui's recent wildfires to 99, but identifying human remains is a slow process.
Destroyed homes and cars are shown, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina.
Posted at 7:15 AM, Aug 15, 2023

Officials in Hawaii increased the death toll from the ongoing wildfires on Maui to 99 late Monday, adding they have started the process of identifying bodies. 

According to the Maui County government, three of the 99 victims have been identified. Their identities will be released to the public after families are notified. 

The search for those missing continues. Maui County officials said 25% of the burn area has been searched. Complicating things is that with the bodies being so badly burned, human remains have turned into ash. 

"The head of the FEMA team conducting this search briefed the team when we went out at the beginning and talked about this: It's not just ash on your clothing when you take it off, it's our loved ones," said Maui Police Chief John Pelletier. "That's the reverence."

He said police were forced to arrest someone for trespassing, which has tied up resources. 

Several hundred additional guards will be brought to keep trespassers out of affected areas. 

Gov. Josh Green said the state has secured 2,000 housing units for temporary shelter. The state has already placed 220 families into housing, he said. He expects some will need housing for at least 36 weeks.

"It will probably go on much longer than that, just so people know, but we don't want people to think that they're going to get housed and suddenly be asked to leave," Green said.

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While Hawaii has a robust tsunami warning system, sirens and other alerts were largely not utilized as wildfires began spreading. 

"Nothing would make us more pleased if we couldn't go back in time and have a lot more protection from sirens," Green said. "Typically when sirens go off, they are because we're worried a large storm is going to come and people historically would immediately go up country if they heard a siren. And typically the communication is by cell phone and on television. All of these modalities were destroyed with a rapid fire that was moving about 60 to 80 mph at 1,000 degrees melting fire trucks along the way."

There have also been reports of property owners getting offers for their land just days after the fires. 

"I've actually reached out to our attorney general to explore options to do a moratorium on any sales of properties that have been damaged or destroyed," Green said.

Green said that while tourism to the impacted areas remains prohibited, areas unaffected by the wildfires remain open for business.