Friday, May 24, 2024

Hawaii wildfire death toll hits 67 as probe launched into blaze response

(Al Jazeera Media NetworkThe death toll from wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui has risen to 67 as search teams combed through the smouldering ruins of Lahaina town and officials sought to determine how the inferno spread so rapidly through the historic resort area with little warning.

Hawaii’s attorney general said on Friday that she was opening a probe into how authorities responded to devastating wildfires.

“The Department of the attorney general will be conducting a comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawaii islands this week,” the office of Attorney General Anne Lopez said in a statement.

The fires have become the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii’s history, surpassing that of a tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960, a year after Hawaii joined the United States.

Fuelled by dry conditions, hot temperatures, and strong winds from a passing hurricane, at least three wildfires erupted on Maui this week, racing through parched brush covering the island.

Maui County officials said in an online statement that firefighters continued to battle the blaze, which was not yet fully contained. Residents of Lahaina were being allowed to return home for the first time to assess the damage.

Officials have warned that search teams with cadaver dogs could still find more dead from the fire that torched about 1,000 buildings, left thousands homeless, and will likely require many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.

Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Maui, said there was a lengthy traffic jam as residents were allowed to return briefly on Friday to Lahaina to assess the damage from the fire. Information released by authorities on Friday also reported that victims of the fire had died while trying to flee the fast-moving blaze.

“Another sign of the speed with which people were caught by this fire,” Rattansi said.

Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.

The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire.

“I authorized a comprehensive review this morning to make sure that we know exactly what happened and when,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green told CNN, referring to the warning sirens.

Officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely what notifications were sent out, and whether they were done via text message, email, or phone calls.

Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a Thursday press conference that the fire’s speed made it “nearly impossible” for front-line responders to communicate with the emergency management officials who would typically provide real-time evacuation orders.

“They were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice,” he said, referring to residents of the neighbourhood where the fire initially struck.

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