Dog Teams Speed Up Search Through Lahaina Fire Rubble As Death Toll Rises

Dog Teams Speed Up Search Through Lahaina Fire Rubble As Death Toll Rises

Hazardous waste will take up to a year to remove, officials said. 89 people are confirmed dead, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in decades.

The search and rescue effort in Lahaina entered a new phase Saturday with the arrival of specialist dog teams over the last 18 hours now helping locate those still missing from a fire that rapidly burned through houses and melted cars.

The official death count rose to 89, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in decades. Gov. Josh Green announced the new tally and warned that the number would rise. Gov. Josh Green said in front of a trailer where handlers were allowing their cadaver detection dogs to cool off.

A dog handler from Washington state search team heads out from Lahaina central to continue the search for fire casualties. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The search for casualties will take eight to 10 days, Green said, as only a “small percentage of the incinerated area so far has been searched.”

“We know there are individuals within just meters of us who lost their lives,” he said as he surveyed the rubble. “We’re going into the houses for the first time.”

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, said later at a press conference that only 3% of the suspected casualty zone had been assessed and that another 15 dogs were on the way to accelerate the search.

Local rescue crews and first responders found themselves overwhelmed after the blaze began in force on Tuesday, rapidly overtaking people as they fled the area. Two other fires erupted on Maui, but Lahaina was hardest hit.

Many residents have said they had little to no warning, prompting criticism of the government amid concerns that the evacuation effort was bungled.

Hawaii’s Attorney General Anne Lopez said last week her office has opened a probe into the response to the wildfires. She promised it would be a comprehensive review of the “critical decision-making and standing policies” before, during and after the fires.

Rick Bartee, the incident support leader working with the units from Washington state, Oakland, California, and Las Vegas, said the teams had some positive detections but searching through the rubble can be a challenge for the dogs as each location can have a “whole spectrum of odors.”

The sweeps proceeded as FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell joined Green and other officials to assess the fire damage and coordinate federal aid with the state. “FEMA will stay in Lahaina as long as the governor tells me to be there,” Criswell said, adding that the agency has 150 people on the Valley Isle.

Some 1,700 people have already registered for disaster assistance, but how much each individual will receive is unclear, Criswell said. “A lot of it depends on what kind of insurance they have.”

Green said it was too soon to say how much federal money had been released, but that it had been authorized. He said the state insurance division will set up shop in Lahaina Thursday, to help residents.

The presence of federal government representatives in Lahaina is an indication that residents can expect to see some benefits coming their way soon. The Small Business Administration will be offering long-term disaster loans to homeowners and businesses, SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman said.

30-year loans would carry a 4% interest rate for businesses and a 2.5% interest rate for homeowners, she said.

Hazardous Waste Removal

Lahaina remained an extremely hazardous environment, Criswell said, and her other primary concerns included sheltering displaced people and removing debris.

FEMA’s Region 9 Administrator Bob Fenton Jr. said the initial waste disposal phase there could take six months to a year, complicated by the lack of capacity at the Maui landfill and the logistical challenges normally associated with the island state.

A search and rescue specialist and a dog trained to locate human remains shown on the streets of Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Army Corps of Engineers Hawaii District Commander Lt. Col. Ryan Pevey, who will take the lead on debris removal said that given the amount of destruction, “I am thinking there’s some hazardous waste that will have to packaged up and disposed of.”

Damaged structures will have to be disassembled and assessed for potentially hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency once the recovery process is concluded, Pevey said.

Fenton said that could involve shipping certain materials to the mainland by barge.

Green indicated he had received signals from the Army and Navy that they may be able to provide assistance for that part of the operation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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