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Pain, anger as Hawaii fire death toll climbs to 80

LAHAINA — Anger was growing yesterday over the official response to a horrific wildfire that levelled a Hawaiian town, killing at least 80 people as it consumed everything in its path.

Over 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed in the fire that tore through Lahaina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) said, wreaking US$5.5 billion in damage and leaving thousands without homes.

Hawaiian authorities said they were opening a probe into the handling of the fire as a congresswoman from the state acknowledged that officials had underestimated the danger, and as residents said there had been no warnings.

“The mountain behind us caught on fire and nobody told us jack,” said Vilma Reed, 63.

“You know when we found that there was a fire? When it was across the street from us.”

Reed, whose house was destroyed by the blaze, said they had fled the flames with what they had in their car, and were now dependent on handouts and the kindness of strangers.

“This is my home now,” she said, gesturing to the car she has been sleeping in with her daughter, her grandson and two pet cats.

In the ashy ruins of Lahaina, Anthony Garcia told AFP how the fire had gutted his apartment.

“It took everything, everything! It’s heartbreaking,” the 80-year-old said. “It’s a lot to take in.”

The town of more than 12,000, once the proud home of the Hawaiian royal family, has been reduced to ruins, its lively hotels and restaurants turned to ashes.

A majestic banyan tree that has been the centre of the community for 150 years has been scarred by the flames, but still stands upright, its branches denuded of green and its sooty trunk transformed into an awkward skeleton.

‘Underestimated the lethality’

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would examine “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawaii islands this week.”

Maui County officials have now revised the death toll to 80 and Governor Josh Green warned that the number of fatalities was sure to rise further. Over 1,400 people were in emergency evacuation shelters.

“We underestimated the lethality, the quickness of fire,” Hawaii Congresswoman Jill Tokuda told CNN on Saturday morning.

Jeremy Greenberg, Fema’s director of operations and for years a volunteer fireman, said the recent blaze was of a type “extraordinarily difficult” to control.

“We talk about these types of fires moving as quickly as the length of a football field in 20 seconds or less,” he said on MSNBC.

Maui suffered numerous power outages during the crisis, preventing many residents from receiving emergency alerts on their cellphones — something, Tokuda said, officials should have prepared for.

“We have got to make sure that we do better,” she added.

Greenberg said Fema and its allied agencies were “bringing every resource that the state of Hawaii needs,” including water for areas where the public sources are contaminated.

He said Fema, which has a permanent distribution centre in Hawaii, was sending more than 150 employees to the affected area.

The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.

Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc. Scientists have said global warming caused by carbon emissions is contributing to the extreme weather.

‘It hurts’

For some of those who made it back into Lahaina, there was a momentary sense of elation when they tearfully reconnected with neighbours they feared might not have made it out alive.

“You made it!” cried Chyna Cho, as she embraced Amber Langdon amid the ruins. “I was trying to find you.”

Fears of looting were also on residents’ minds, and county authorities said anyone accessing Lahaina would have to prove they lived or were staying at a hotel there, and that a curfew would be in place between 10.00pm and 6.00am.

Some of those who made it back to Lahaina wandered in stunned silence trying to take in the enormity of the destruction.

Anthony La Puente, 44, said the shock of finding his home burned to nothing was profound.

“It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with, or the things you remember,” he told AFP of the house he had lived in for 16 years. — AFP

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