In one of America's deadliest wildfires, the total death toll remains unclear as an unknown number of people remain missing in Hawaii. After three weeks of searching, crews in Maui's historic seaside community of Lahaina have all but finished looking for victims of the devastating fire. The current count of the dead stands at 115, but there are still many people missing. Authorities believe that responders have already recovered any remains that are recognizable, and they are now shifting their focus to removing hazardous waste and making the area safe for residents to return.
Darryl Oliveira, the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, announced at a news conference that the search and recovery mission is almost complete, and they are moving into the next phase, which involves hazardous waste removal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Urban search and rescue teams have completed their searches on land, but there is still ongoing search activity in the ocean off Lahaina. The FBI is conducting a search along the coastline, but no human remains have been found thus far.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier stated that there are 110 missing persons reports filed with the Maui police, and over 50 of those cases are still active and being worked on. Although the initial land search has been completed, authorities may revisit certain areas based on details from the missing person reports. Pelletier emphasized the need for trust and patience as officials continue to identify remains and go through the lists of the missing. So far, 45 of those killed have been identified and their loved ones notified. DNA samples have been collected from 120 individuals to aid in the identification process, and more samples are being gathered.
The EPA is now stepping in to search for and remove hazardous materials, such as paints, pesticides, and batteries, by hand. Lahaina had numerous lithium-ion solar-powered energy storage batteries, which will be treated as potentially dangerous. Asbestos material will also be removed, and any asbestos found in the ash will be addressed in the subsequent phase of cleanup. The EPA plans to apply a non-toxic, biodegradable adhesive called Soiltac to prevent ash from migrating into the ocean. They have also integrated cultural observers into their teams to ensure that the cleanup is done with caution, reverence, and respect for the historic and cultural significance of Lahaina.
According to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, the toxic debris collected by the EPA will be shipped to the continental U.S. and will not remain on Maui or in Hawaii. This decision was made to protect the health and safety of the residents. The county did not sound its emergency sirens to warn residents of the fire when it initially spread on August 8. However, officials are now working on new protocols to incorporate sirens as a tool for early warning, especially given the overlapping hurricane season and dry conditions on Maui and statewide.
On August 24, Maui County officials released the names of 388 people who were initially unaccounted for, out of an estimated group of 1,000-1,100 missing individuals provided by the FBI. However, within a day, more than 100 people or their relatives came forward to confirm that they were safe. The FBI clarified that this does not necessarily mean that those individuals have been removed from the list, as the new information still needs to be vetted and confirmed.
The wildfire not only caused breathing issues due to smoke but also released toxic chemicals as it burned through industrial items, buildings, and cars. The state's Department of Health has identified "toxic contaminants present in debris and ash" as a top hazard concern in Lahaina. Other heavy metals and chemicals, including asbestos, may also be present in the ashen remains of the city.