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At least 99 people were killed in Maui’s wildfires. With only 25% of the burn area searched, officials worry the death toll will climb


By Nouran Salahieh, CNN

(CNN) — With only a quarter of the Maui wildfire burn area searched, the death toll of what’s already the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century still could rise significantly, Hawaii authorities said Monday.

At least 99 people have been confirmed dead from the wildfires, and the number could double over the next 10 days, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CNN Monday.

“It is a tragedy beyond tragedies,” the governor said about the fires that started sweeping parts of the island last week.

Authorities on Tuesday are expected to begin releasing the names of the dead whose families have been notified, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said in a Monday news conference.

Most of the people found dead had been out in the open, in cars or in the water in western Maui’s hard-hit Lahaina area, Green told CNN. As more teams and cadaver dogs join the effort, the search is expanding through wiped-out neighborhoods.

It’s unclear how many people are unaccounted for, in part because of communication gaps, Green said. “A lot of people had to run and left all they had behind. They don’t have their phones – the phones are incinerated,” he said.

As of Monday, around 25% of the fire zone had been searched, Pelletier said, adding that he hopes 85% to 90% will have been covered by the weekend.

“We started with one dog. We are at 20,” Pelletier said. “We can only move as fast as we can, but we got the right amount of workers and teams doing it.”

Crews are going through what used to be homes, business and historic landmarks burned to the ground after wind-whipped wildfires began spreading erratically August 8, suddenly engulfing homes, forcing harrowing escapes and likely displacing thousands.

“Nothing can prepare you for what I saw during my time here, and nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll of the impact that this severe event has taken on them,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Monday.

The Maui wildfires are the deadliest in the US in more than 100 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

As firefighting and search efforts continue, here’s the latest on what’s happening on Maui:

• Burn victims treated: Nine people injured in the wildfires have been admitted to a specialized burn unit in Honolulu, the only burn unit in the state and the Pacific Region, according to Straub Medical Center.

• Calls to provide DNA: Those with missing family members have been urged to contact authorities to provide DNA samples, which would help in the identification process. Only three of those killed could be identified through fingerprints, Pelletier said, stressing the need for the DNA swabs.

• Homes lost: More than 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged by the fires – about 86% of them residential, Green said.

• ‘Shelters are starting to empty’: More than 400 hotel rooms are available for those displaced, and 1,400 Airbnb units will be ready for them Tuesday, Green said. And,160 people are offering to share their houses, he said. “We’ve already placed 220 families into housing. So you can see the shelters are starting to empty,” Green said.

• Power coming back: The fires wiped out both power and communications for thousands. Hawaiian Electric planned to have power restored to 80% of its 12,400 customers who lost power by end of Monday, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said.

• Lawsuit over power lines: Hawaiian Electric is facing a lawsuit claiming power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire, though an official cause has not yet been determined.

• Coast Guard shifts focus: The US Coast Guard in Maui is moving from search and rescue mode to containing potentially hazardous materials in the ocean left behind by the fires. Sonar technology was brought in and a 100-foot boom placed at the mouth of the Lahaina Harbor, the service said.

Stories emerge of those lost in fires

Families of two victims told CNN their loved ones died while trying to escape the Lahaina fire.

Maui resident Carole Hartley, 60, and her partner, Charles Paxton, were trying to evacuate when the smoke from the fire overwhelmed the couple and they got separated, her sister Donna Gardner Hartley told CNN.

Winds were vicious and they couldn’t see through dark smoke that “felt like a tornado,” Gardner Hartley recalled Charles telling her.

“They kept calling each other’s name,” Gardner Hartley said in a Facebook post. “He was screaming, ‘Run, run, run, Carole run.’ He eventually could not hear her anymore.”

Paxton, who was found by his friends, organized a search for Hartley after he was treated for his injuries, the sister said.

Hartley’s remains eventually were found on the couple’s property over the weekend, Gardner Hartley told CNN.

Hartley was described by her sister as a free spirit who “always looked for the good in people and always helped others.”

Franklin “Frankie” Trejos, 68, also died trying to escape the Lahaina fire, his niece Kika Perez Grant told CNN.

The family got a call from Trejos’ roommate letting them know that the island was on fire and that he wasn’t sure if Trejos had made it out alive, Perez Grant said.

“We kept hope alive, but then his roommate called us again a few hours later to tell us he had found Uncle Frankie’s remains,” Perez Grant said.

Trejos and his roommate tried to save their property at first, but then decided to leave in their own cars when they realized it was impossible, Perez Grant said.

The roommate later found Trejos’ car a few blocks from the house, with Trejos’ remains on top of the roommate’s dog, which also died, Perez Grant said.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica who had moved to the United States at a young age, lived in Lahaina for the last 30 years, according to his niece.

“Uncle Frankie was a kind man, a nature lover, an animal lover and he loved his friends and his families with this whole heart,” Perez Grant said. “He loved adventure and was a free spirit.”

Questions over siren systems and fire hydrants

As the fires quickly advanced on the historic town of Lahaina last week, first responders encountered weak water pressure and fire hydrants running dry, several firefighters told the New York Times.

“There was just no water in the hydrants,” Keahi Ho, one of the firefighters working in Lahaina, told the paper.

Another firefighter, unnamed by the paper because he was not authorized to discuss the operation, said his truck connected to a hydrant but the water pressure was too weak to be of use, and the flames spread beyond firefighters’ ability to contain them.

CNN sought comment and information from the Maui County Department of Water Supply.

Asked about reports that firefighters didn’t have enough water to tackle the blazes on August 8, the governor told reporters in a news conference Monday: “One thing that people need to understand, especially from far away, is there’s been a great deal of water conflict on Maui for many years.”

“We have a difficult time on Maui. In other rural areas, getting enough water for houses, for our people, for any response,” Green said.

West Maui residents have described the fires jumping across highways and showing up in their yards or their engulfing homes without warning, forcing them to run for their lives.

Hawaii’s network of about 400 alarms, meant to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters, did not activate as the fire spread August 8, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub.

Although the emergency response is still being reviewed, authorities believe the sirens were “essentially immobilized” by the extreme heat, Green told CNN on Monday.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is set to lead a review of officials’ response to the wildfires, her office announced Friday. The review will encompass “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires,” the attorney general’s office said.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Raja Razek, Caroll Alvarado, DJ Judd, Oren Liebermann, Gloria Pazmino, Chris Boyette, Stephanie Becker and Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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