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Maui fire becomes the deadliest wildfire in modern US history as death toll rises to 106

Over 100 people have died and more than 11,000 have been evacuated as wildfires continue to rage on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
/ Source: TODAY

The Maui wildfire, which devastated the town of Lahaina, has now become the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history with the death toll rising to 106.

On Aug. 15, the County of Maui shared a press release stating that at this time, 106 human remains have been discovered.

"We offer our deepest condolences to the families who are beginning to receive notifications about their loved ones,” Mayor Richard Bissen said in the release. “As a community, we offer our prayers of comfort in this most difficult time.”

Two victims have been officially identified and their next of kin have been notified by officials as of Aug. 15: Robert Dyckman, 74, of Lahaina, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, of Lahaina.

Officials told TODAY Aug. 16 that they expect to identify up to 20 new victims a day.

Jeff Hickman, spokesperson for Hawaii’s Department of Defense, told TODAY on Monday, Aug. 14, that with so little of the search done, "the fear is the number will get higher."

"They want to be meticulous and do it right," Hickman says. "Right now they’re doing cars and soon they’ll start to entire buildings."

With 1,100 people in shelters and a flood of donated items like water, baby formula and pillows, Hickman told TODAY that the biggest thing people can do now to assist in the recovery is to send monetary donations. (TODAY put together a list of credible relief organizations accepting donations.)

At a press conference on Aug. 12, attended by NBC News, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said the damage from the fires was estimated at close to $6 billion making it likely the largest natural disaster in the state’s history. It's also estimated that 2,207 structures were destroyed or damaged in Lahaina and the majority of buildings impacted were residential, according to damage assessments.

Maui police restricted access to West Maui, but Honoapiilani Highway was temporarily open for residents to leave Lahaina. Maui County officials added that Lahaina remains barricaded, warning people to stay out of the area due to "hazards including toxic particles from smoldering areas."

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told NBC affiliate KHNL of Honolulu on Aug. 10 that as residents return to the impacted area, they needed to be mentally prepared.

“This will bring Hawaii together, but prepare yourself for the emotional turmoil because if I feel it — and I have the experience as an emergency guy who saw tragedy in the course of 25 years in the hospital — it will be shocking to a lot of other people,” he said of the rising death toll.

Green later said on Aug. 14 that around 86% of the more than 2,200 structures that were destroyed in the wildfires had been residential.

According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Dora, which has been passing south of the islands of Hawaii, has caused some of the strong winds and "dangerous fire conditions" since Aug. 8.

Hawaii has been under an emergency proclamation for the wildfires since Aug. 8.

What happened in Lahaina?

Many of the people killed in the wildfires were in Lahaina, where the flames overtook the historic town of about 12,000 people on the west coast of Maui.

Aerial video showing the scope of the destruction reveals the town has been largely reduced to ash.

The town's treasured 150-year-old banyan tree was also burned, the NBC News reports, though it still may survive.

When the death toll was 36, the town's mayor said that the city would continue to be in a "search and rescue mode."

"We've had many dwellings, businesses, structures that have been burnt — many of them to the ground," Maui Mayor Richard T. Bissen said on Aug. 9, adding that thousands are now in shelters.

Green said in a statement on Aug. 9 that "hundreds of local families" have been displaced in the "terrible disaster," which was fueled by winds from Hurricane Dora and underlying drought conditions.

Thursday morning, Green told local news stations he had been notified that President Joe Biden had approved a national disaster declaration for Hawaii.

In an Aug. 10 press conference, Green said it will take years to rebuild and possibly billions of dollars. 

“When you see full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you,” he said. “It does appear like a bomb and fire went off, if I may. And all of those buildings virtually are going to have to be rebuilt.”

Residents were forced to evacuate

More than 11,000 people have already been evacuated from Maui and another 2,000 are expected to leave by Aug. 11, officials said.

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by people with serious burns, and thousands of people are being housed in evacuation centers, NBC News reported.

“Everyone I know is now homeless,” Maui resident Dustin Kaleiopu said on TODAY on Aug. 10. “In 36 hours, our town has been burnt to ashes, nothing left.”

Ed Sniffen, director of the Hawaii Department of Transport, said at a news conference at 8 p.m. local time on Aug. 9 (3 a.m. Thursday ET) that 11,400 people had been flown out so far. He added that 600 others were expected to stay overnight at the airport in order to leave on the next available flights.

United Airlines sent empty airplanes for its regularly scheduled flights to Maui to be used as passenger flights to evacuate people to the mainland, the airline said in a statement on Aug. 10.

American Airlines said it expects to operate all of the scheduled flights to and from Maui on Aug. 10 and has added an additional flight to help with the evacuation. Also, customers whose travel plans are affected by the wildfires can rebook without fees, cancel or receive a refund.

A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii
A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii on Aug. 9. Thousands of residents raced to escape homes on Maui as blazes swept across the island, destroying parts of a centuries-old town in one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years. Ty O'Neil / AP

US Coast Guard rescued 17 people from water

The U.S. Coast Guard said during a press conference on Aug. 11 that their crews rescued 17 survivors from the water of Lahaina Harbor the evening of Aug. 8 and into early Aug. 9.

Capt. Asa Kirksey, the commander of Coast Guard sector Honolulu, said that there were other people in the water who were helped by other agencies who responded to the urgent broadcast to all mariners "indicating what we thought would be a mass rescue."

She said eight good Samaritan vessels also responded to a report of what they initially believed to be as many as 100 people in the water and clinging to the sea wall. She added that it was unclear exactly how many people were rescued from the ocean by other parties.

Kirksey said approximately 300 Coast Guard personnel had mobilized and continued searching "in case we received additional reports of persons entering the water."

All 17 survivors rescued by the Coast Guard were reported to be in stable condition, Kirksey said. She added that it wasn't clear the age breakdown of the people rescued but a Coast Guard surface swimmer had managed to "save five people including two children from the water."

Originally, the Coast Guard had said in a news release that 14 people were rescued on Aug. 8.

What caused the fires in Hawaii?

The National Weather Service shared the morning of Aug. 9, that Hurricane Dora is to blame for "dangerous fire conditions" and extreme wind gusts.

Top wind gust speeds above 80 mph were clocked across Hawaii this week, according to data from the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning the morning of Aug. 9, warning of impending critical fire conditions. The strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures will likely contribute to "extreme fire behavior."

The winds were expected to bring 35 mph gusts as temperatures were likely to climb to 107 degrees, according to the NWS.

"Any fires that will develop will likely spread rapidly," the warning advised.

The U.S. Drought Monitor also notes that much of Maui was and is in drought conditions.

Biden calls Hawaii wildfires ‘devastating’ and promises help

President Joe Biden spoke out on Aug. 10 about the wildfires, remarking that anyone who lost a loved one or had their home damaged or destroyed is “going to get help immediately.”

Biden — who spoke at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah — was there to mark the first anniversary of the PACT Act, NBC News reports.

He also thanked emergency responders for their “brave” actions and “working around the clock” to help.

The president also noted that FEMA is coordinating disaster assistance. He said he has directed all available federal assets on the island to assist local emergency response crews to work “as quickly as possible to fight these fires and evacuate residents and tourists.”

“In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii — but not just our prayers,” he concluded his comments on the wildfires. “Every asset we have will be available in them. And we’ve seen their homes, their businesses destroyed and some have lost loved ones. And it’s not over yet.”

On Aug. 11, Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters the White House is continuing to monitor the situation and helping to coordinate resources.

“We are coordinating federal resources to swiftly get there to support the work that has to be done both in terms of recovery, but to just support the folks on the ground,” she said. 

“It is tragic what has happened there. I have full faith and confidence in the leadership in Hawaii to stay on top of this, but they will have our full support,” Harris said. “Our prayers are with the families and with the leaders.”

She added that she would like to tour the damage but doesn't want to distract from the needs of victims and first responders.

Are the wildfires in Hawaii still burning?

On Aug. 15, Maui County said in a release that the Lahaina fire was 85% contained, the Upcountry/Kula fire was 75% contained and the Pulehu/Kihei fire was 100% contained.

A fire that led to sudden evacuations in Kaanapali the night of Aug. 11 was 100% contained within about two hours.