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Maui’s death toll reaches 111 as search and rescue efforts continue

Maui officials: Warning sirens would not have saved more lives

(CNN) — With more than a third of Maui’s wildfire burn zone now searched, children are confirmed among 111 killed as responders – many facing their own grief – continue to hunt for traces of perhaps more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for since last week’s unprecedented inferno, officials in Hawaii said.

“No one has ever seen this that is alive today – not this size, not this number, not this volume,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Wednesday. “And we’re not done.”

“Realize that the responders that are going out there are recovering their loved ones and members of their families,” he said.

About 38% of the burn zone had been searched as of Wednesday afternoon, Pelletier said, as authorities hope to cover much of it by the weekend. Combing the ashes of what used to be homes, business and historic landmarks is difficult, and identifying those killed won’t be easy, as remains are largely unrecognizable and fingerprints rarely found, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said.

Complicating matters is uncertainty over how many remain missing after the fires sparked quickly and spread erratically, engulfing thousands of homes on the island. “Probably still over 1,000” people are unaccounted for, Green told CNN on Wednesday. The precise sum is hard to nail down due to telecommunications gaps, authorities have said.

A genetics team will help identify remains, “so that we can make sure that we’re finding who our loved ones are, and that we make the notifications with dignity and honor,” Pelletier said, urging patience. Authorities have asked relatives of the missing to provide DNA samples, with 41 provided through Tuesday, county officials said.

Brenda Keau’s husband gave a DNA sample to help find his 83-year-old mother, she told CNN. The couple found her home in hard-hit Lahaina burned to the ground, she said.

“We accepted it on the day that we saw that there was no house,” Keau said. “But you never give up hope.”

Searches through the burn areas have expanded over the past week, with 40 canines from 15 states deployed, the Hawaii Department of Defense’s Jeff Hickman told CNN.

“We’ll start to bring closure to those who need it and identify those missing,” he said. “There’s assistance centers helping those who are missing, there’s civilian lists going around and DNA being collected to help make the match and help people find those who are still missing.”

Here’s more on the latest in Maui:

• Authorities name more victims: Melva Benjamin, 71, Virginia Dofa, 90, Alfredo Galinato, 79, Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, all of Lahaina, were killed, Maui County officials said Wednesday. Names of other victims have been released by families.

• Firefight continues: Crews are still battling the fires. “We are spread thin, and we are at multiple locations throughout the island,” Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said. Still, “if something should come, we’re ready for it.”

• Power company under scrutiny: As Hawaiian Electric faces questions for not shutting down power lines when high winds created dangerous fire conditions, the company that runs a sensor network on Maui says it detected major utility grid faults hours before fires started.

• Biden set to visit Monday: The White House announced the president will visit Maui with the first lady.

• Questions over sirens: Hawaii has one of the largest siren warning systems in the world, but the 80 alarms on Maui stayed silent as flames spread. The sirens are primarily used to warn when a tsunami is approaching the area, and if they had sounded, many residents would’ve gone to the mountainside, where the fire was at its worst, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya told reporters.

• Emergency response will be reviewed: Hawaii’s attorney general will spearhead a review of official decisions in response to the wildfires, her office has said.

‘A scar that we will carry for a very long time’

As they deal with the loss of their homes or loved ones, many on Maui are also fighting fires, searching for remains or caring for burn patients.

When the fires began August 8 and overwhelmed crews as powerful winds whipped the area, some firefighters knew their own homes could burn. “The people that were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes – 25 of our firefighters lost their homes,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said Wednesday.

Maui firefighter Aina Kohler was on the front lines that day and stuck to her mission to save lives, even as her house burned to the ground, she told CNN affiliate KITV. By the time flames reached her home, firefighters had run out of water, she said.

“That was honestly the most disheartening thing of my life. I felt the supply, and I’m like: It’s limp. Just leaving a house to burn because we don’t have enough water is like something I’ve never experienced before,” she said.

Two of Kohler’s fellow firefighters also lost their homes while battling the fires, she said.

“They watched their homes burn as they fought the fire for other homes in their neighborhood,” she explained. “That hit really hard.”

“It’s not just firefighters that were out there risking their lives to help people,” her husband Jonny Varona, also a firefighter, said. “It was the community. Everybody down there understood what was happening. You couldn’t just let people die without trying to help them.”

National Guard members going through the burn zone are also residents of the area.

“The motivation is the families,” Hickman told CNN. “This is a community-based organization. These are Guardsmen who are from the area. This is their community.”

“They’re used to cleaning up debris, maybe protecting people from going down certain roads because of lava or floods. This is brand new,” Hickman said.

It’s also difficult time for hospital employees, said Maui Health COO Wade Ebersole. Maui Memorial Medical Center had treated 148 patients with fire-related injuries as of Wednesday morning, including 67 with burns or smoke-related problems, he said.

“This is a small, very tight-knit community, and we are one degree of separation from most people on the island. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that isn’t directly connected to someone who’s been directly impacted by the fires,” Ebersole said. “That is a scar that we will carry for a very long time.”

Role of power lines scrutinized

Meanwhile, a sensor network run by Whisker Labs detected an “increasingly stressed utility grid” on Maui, beginning late August 7 and into the next morning, its CEO, Bob Marshall, told “CNN This Morning” on Wednesday.

“Through the overnight hours, when all the fires ignited, we measured 122 individual faults on the utility grid,” Marshall said.

Video taken at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Makawao appears to show a power pole faulting just before 11 p.m. on August 7. Soon after, what appears to be flames are seen in the video, first reported by The Washington Post.

The sensor system provided “verification that, indeed, this was very likely caused by a fault on the utility grid,” Marshall said.

The Makawao fire was hours before and miles away from the fire that decimated the historic portions of Lahaina in Western Maui. But sensors detected faults on the grid before that fire, too, Marshall said.

A class-action lawsuit filed over the weekend alleges the wildfires were caused by Hawaiian Electric’s energized power lines that were knocked down by strong winds.

The company and its subsidiaries “chose not to deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground,” the suit alleges.

Precautionary shutoffs have to be arranged with first responders, Hawaiian Electric Vice President Jim Kelly told CNN on Sunday in an email, adding the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“Electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” Kelly said.

“We know there is speculation about what started the fires, and we, along with others, are working hard to figure out what happened,” Darren Pai, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric, told The Washington Post.