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Maui fires death toll rises to 67, and survivors say they didn't get any warnings as the flames closed in

Lahaina in ruins after devastating Maui wildfire
Lahaina lies in ruins after devastating Maui wildfire 04:27

Some Maui residents who escaped the deadly fires that tore through the Hawaiian island said they received no official warnings about the blazes that claimed dozens of lives and destroyed hundreds of buildings.

"We kind of just figured it out on our own," Tiare Abraham told CBS News. "… I realized when it was time to go when the smoke was so dark, we could not see anything outside."

At least 67 people were killed, Maui County Officials said Friday, and many are still missing. Gov. Josh Green warned that the death toll would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue. 

Some residents were being allowed to return to the devastated historic town of Lahaina to check on their property starting Friday afternoon, and a daily curfew will be in effect between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the disaster area, officials said.

Maui County officials said in an update late Friday afternoon that barricades patrolled by officers were in place in certain parts of Lahaina town because "burning areas are highly toxic." The public was advised to beware of hot spots and wear a mask and gloves. 

Evacuations and an assessment of the destruction on Maui are ongoing with more than 1,000 homes and other structures known to be damaged or destroyed, including historic buildings and businesses. Additional crews are arriving on the island to help. A Federal Emergency Management Agency search and rescue team arrived Thursday night with two cadaver dogs, officials said Friday.

Liza Tobias returned to her home in Lahaina on foot Thursday to find it in ruins and her father Carlo Tobias missing after he refused to leave Tuesday night.

"I wanted to force him to come with me, but he was very hardheaded and he didn't want to come," she told CBS affiliate KGMB-TV.

Damage from the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, is seen August 10, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video.
Damage from the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, is seen August 10, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Sen. Brian Schatz via Instagram/via Reuters

Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens were triggered when the wildfires erupted Tuesday, officials confirmed Thursday. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations — but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced Friday that her agency would conduct a "comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires."  

Lahaina business owner J.D. Hessemer said he decided to evacuate early in the morning before the fires reached the town, without ever hearing an emergency alert.

"The winds were just getting out of control. Power lines were down everywhere and we had to reroute," Hessemer told "CBS Mornings" on Friday. "...We just decided it was not safe to stay around for the day."

He said he received no official warning or instructions to evacuate.

"I received nothing at no point in time. I got nothing on my phone," he said.

Maui resident describes fleeing devastating wildfires, says he wasn't told to evacuate 04:59

About 15,000 visitors were on flights departing the island Thursday, officials said. On the island of Oahu, the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu was turned into an assistance center, stocking it with water, food, and volunteers who help visitors arrange travel home.

The Lahaina blaze is already the state's deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island and the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

"Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down," Green said during a Thursday news conference after walking the ruins of the town with Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. "Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina."

Hawaii Fires
Wildfire wreckage is seen on August 9, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Tiffany Kidder Winn via AP

Green said "hundreds of homes" have been burned and estimated over 1,000 buildings have been destroyed.

"It's a heartbreaking day," Green said. "Without a doubt, what we saw is catastrophic."

He described it as "likely the largest natural disaster" ever in Hawaii.

According to KGMB-TV, Green went on to say, "When you see the full extent of the destruction in Lahaina, it will shock you. ... All of the buildings virtually are gonna have to be rebuilt. It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image, with its own values." 

"What we're telling you is we will rebuild," he added.

US-FIRE-HAWAII
An aerial image taken on August 10, 2023 shows destroyed homes and buildings in Lahaina along the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

Officials were unable to provide an estimate on the number of people missing. "Honestly, we don't know," Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters.

KGMB, citing authorities, said three large fires on Maui, including the one in Lahaina, were still active, but firefighters appeared to be focusing mostly on hotspots after airdrops conducted for the first time on Wednesday, when winds began to die down, were finally able to beat down flames. On Friday afternoon, Maui County said the Lahaina wildfire was 85% contained. 

The Pulehu fire, burning east of Kihei, was 80% contained, while the Upcountry Maui fire was at 50% containment. 

Crews were contending with flare-ups with all three fires, Maui County officials said. 

About 4,500 homes and businesses across Maui had no power as of Friday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. The local utility, Hawaiian Electric, said it was "asking West Maui customers without power to prepare for extended outages that could last several weeks in some areas."

On Friday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and fiancee Lauren Sanchez dedicated $100 million "to help Maui get back on its feet," Sanchez announced on Instagram.  

Questions about warning system

Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain to alert people to various natural disasters and other threats. But many of Lahaina's survivors said in interviews at evacuation centers that they didn't hear any sirens and only realized they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News on Thursday that there wasn't any warning about the fire and they left with only what they were wearing.

"The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbor's yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out," Kaleiopu said.

"No warning": Hawaii resident describes harrowing escape from wildfires 06:57

William Bugle, 76, told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti he was burned on his arm when the roof blew off his house and he was hit by red-hot shingles. "It went from like nothing to, like, I felt this heat, this tremendous heat," Bugle said.

Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired mailman from Lahaina, didn't know about the fire until he smelled smoke. Power and cell phone service had both gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.

He tried to leave in his Jeep but had to abandon the vehicle and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a seawall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.

Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub told The Associated Press on Thursday that the department's records don't show that Maui's warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, Weintraub said.

It's not clear if those alerts were sent before widespread power and cellular outages cut off most communication to Lahaina.

Communications have been spotty across Maui, with 911, landline and cellular service failing at times. Power was also out in parts of the island.

Maui Wildfire Continues
Volunteers stack canned goods at War Memorial Stadium in Kahului, Hawaii on August 10, 2023. Mengshin Lin for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, the fire started Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched brush covering the island and then flattening homes and anything else in its path.

Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhood that it was impossible to get messages to the emergency management agencies responsible for emergency alerts.

Lahaina was at high risk

Lahaina's wildfire risk was well known. Maui County's hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.

The report also noted that West Maui had the island's highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

"This may limit the population's ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events," the plan noted.

Maui's firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are 65 firefighters at most working at any given time in Maui County, and they're responsible for fighting fires on three islands — Maui, Molokai and Lanai — he said.

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they're all designed for on-road use. The department doesn't have any off-road vehicles, he said.

That means fire crews can't attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Lee explained. The high winds caused by Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.

"You're basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch," Lee said. "You've got to be careful — you don't want to get caught downwind from that because you're going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude."

Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, Bissen noted, while tourists in hotels were told to shelter in place so emergency vehicles could get into the area.

Maui Wildfire Continues
Puong Sui, center, talks to her daughter at War Memorial Stadium in Kahului, Hawaii on August 10, 2023. Sui lost her house and all belongings in Lahaina during the wildfire and was planning to fly to Las Vegas on Sunday to reunite with her family. Mengshin Lin for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The mayor said downed power poles added to the chaos as people attempted to flee Lahaina by cutting off two important roads out of town. Speaking at the Thursday news conference, Bissen said 29 poles fell with live wires still attached, and leaving only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa.

KGMB reports that Oprah Winfrey, a part-time Maui resident, visited evacuees Thursday at the War Memorial Gymnasium in Maui. The station says she's one of Maui's biggest private landowners, with more than 1,000 acres in Kula and Hana. It was unclear whether any of her land was damaged from the wildfires.  

President Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. Traveling in Utah on Thursday, he pledged that the federal response will ensure that "anyone who's lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately." Mr. Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was "surging emergency personnel" on the island.

Bissen previously said officials hadn't yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.

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