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At least 110 people dead in Maui wildfires, governor says, as role of power lines scrutinized

Dominick Del Vecchio/Reuters 16 Aug 23

Originally Published: 16 AUG 23 02:41 ET Updated: 16 AUG 23 19:48 ET

By Lauren Mascarenhas and Nouran Salahieh, CNN

(CNN) — The death toll in the Maui wildfires is now 110, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Wednesday news conference, as Hawaiian Electric faces mounting questions for not shutting down power lines when high winds created dangerous fire conditions.

Earlier Wednesday, the company that runs a sensor network on Maui said it detected multiple major utility grid faults hours before fires started.

The sensor network detected an “increasingly stressed utility grid” on Maui, beginning late August 7 and into the morning of August 8, Bob Marshall, CEO of Whisker Labs, said on “CNN This Morning.”

A fault is “a short circuit, or partial short-circuit” that causes excessive current to flow through an electrical system, according to the US Department of Energy.

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

One of those faults could produce an arc flash, he said, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes as a flashover of electric current leaving its intended path – such as a downed power line releasing power – and could result in fire.

At least 110 people were killed in the fires, Green said Wednesday. Officials are continuing to fight the fires, and an official cause has yet to be determined.

Hawaiian Electric said its immediate focus is on restoring power to its customers, supporting emergency response efforts and developing a long-term recovery plan.

Here’s the latest on what’s happening on Maui:

Some victims are named: Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, both of Lahaina, were killed, Maui County officials said Tuesday. Names of other victims have been released by families.

Key road to open: After days of closures that frustrated residents, the Lahaina Bypass will be reopened starting Wednesday, with overnight hours limited to residents only, the governor said Tuesday.

Displaced residents in hotel rooms and Airbnbs: “Between donations and hotel rooms and Airbnb, we’ll now be able to house virtually everyone who’s impacted,” Green said Tuesday.

Unsafe drinking water: Parts of hard-hit of the Lahaina and Upper Kula areas are under a water advisory, with residents told they “should not drink and/or boil water.”

Firefight continues: The Lahaina fire in western Maui was 85% contained and the Kula fire in upcountry Maui was 60% contained as of Tuesday morning, Maui County officials said.

Biden promises help: Hawaii will have “every asset they need” for ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts, the president said Tuesday, even as some on Maui have voiced frustration about a slow pace of aid. Biden mourned the loss of life and “generations of native Hawaiian history turned into ruin.” The White House said Biden will visit Maui with the first lady on Monday.

Emergency response under review: Authorities have been facing questions over emergency sirens that weren’t activated as flames spread August 8 and fire hydrants that reportedly ran dry. Hawaii’s attorney general will spearhead a review of decisions that officials made in response to the wildfires, her office has said.

Lawsuit over power lines: Hawaiian Electric is facing a lawsuit claiming power lines blown over by high winds helped to cause the destructive Lahaina wildfire, though an official cause has not yet been determined.

Questions over power lines

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

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 Marshall said sensors detected faults on the grid before that fire, too.

“We show a clear, major fault in the vicinity of Lahaina at 11:38 p.m. Monday night, and then dozens more faults overnight until power is lost on our sensors at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning,” Marshall said.

The County of Maui said in a Facebook post a brush fire was reported Tuesday at 6:37 a.m. near Lahainaluna Road in Lahaina, and the first evacuations in the area were ordered at 6:40 a.m.

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.

Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric vice president, told CNN Sunday via email that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. He added precautionary shut-offs have to be arranged with first responders.

“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.

Aftermath of fires draws comparisons to 9/11

Identifying those killed in the wildfires will be very difficult and likely take weeks, Hawaii’s governor said Tuesday as families desperately waiting to hear about lost loved ones were asked to provide DNA samples.

A genetics team will help identify victims, Green told CNN, as around 185 search and rescue workers and 20 cadaver dogs continued to comb through the ashes of homes and businesses incinerated by the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century.

“This is much like you see in a war zone or what we saw with 9/11,” Green said on “The Source with Kaitlan Collins.”

Identification is challenging because remains are largely unrecognizable and fingerprints are rarely being found, Green said. Investigators need to develop DNA profiles from the remains and hopefully find matches, including from any DNA provided by relatives of the missing, officials have said.

“We’re asking all of our loved friends and family in the area who have any concern to go get swabbed at the family support center so that we can match people genetically,” the governor said.

Only five of the dead had been identified as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Maui County officials. Two were publicly named, and names of the other three will be announced when their families are notified, the county said.

Family members of missing people had provided 41 DNA samples, county officials said.

Meanwhile, the number of people still unaccounted for is unclear, authorities say.

The fires started spreading wildly August 8 and devastated the historic portions of Lahaina in western Maui.

Authorities had gone through about a third of the search area as of Tuesday; the county put the figure at 32% while the governor said it was 27%. Green hopes “much of it will be done” by the weekend, he told CNN on Tuesday of the work.

But as the search expands, authorities fear the already grim death toll will only rise.

Many human remains found so far were on a seaside road, Green said. “Now that we go into the houses, we’re not sure what we’ll see. We’re hopeful and praying that it’s not large, large numbers,” he told CNN.

A portable morgue also was brought in to help authorities identify and process remains with X-rays and other equipment, Jonathan Greene, deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday.

Sirens stayed silent

Hawaii has one the largest siren warning systems in the world, but its 400 alarms, 80 of which are on Maui, stayed silent as the wildfires spread through the island.

That largely limited emergency communications to mobile phones and radio and television broadcasts at a time when most power and cell service had already been cut off.

“Nobody at the state and nobody at the county attempted to activate those sirens based on our records,” Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub said.

“The sirens were typically used for tsunamis or hurricanes. To my knowledge, at least, I never experienced them in use for fires,” Green told CNN. “Sometimes sirens send people up mountain and going up the mountain during a fire can be problematic.”

Some of the sirens were broken, Green said, adding that he has asked his attorney general to conduct a full investigation into the wildfires, including why the sirens never went off.

If the sirens were working, “a lot of people would have, I am sure, at least been alerted more quickly, and that is important,” he noted.

Green earlier told CNN that the sirens were “essentially immobilized” by the extreme heat.

Hawaiian broadcaster grapples with loss as he reports on the fires

While covering the wildfires, Hawaii News Now broadcaster Jonathan Masaki Shiroma said he found out four of his family members died in the tragedy and one more is missing.

“The people of Hawaii have always been rooted in the spirit of ‘ohana,’ which is family, and I know how painstaking this is. I know the hurt. I know the deep void we all feel because losing Lahaina, losing our family members is something so personal,” Shiroma said on CNN This Morning.

As he reported on the events unfolding in Maui, Shiroma said he started to realize that the places he called home as a child were being hit.

“I remember as a child playing at that very house that sadly was lost,” he said.

As he and others grapple with the destruction left in the wake of the fires, Shiroma said the people of Maui will be leaning on a culture of unity, patience and care for one another.

“In Hawaii, when something happens, you bring food, you bring water, you sit down and you just try to be there,” he said.

Mom describes family’s harrowing escape into ocean

Tee Dang, her three children and husband were driving on Lahaina’s Front Street last week, trying to evacuate, when cars around them suddenly caught fire as flames advanced into the historic city.

The family, there on vacation, had to abandon their rental car and jump into the ocean to save themselves.

Dang, who can’t swim, recalled her husband telling her that their only option was to get in the water.

“We opened the car to jump down. It was just like hot oven fire – flaming, blowing at us. We couldn’t breathe when we opened the car door,” Dang told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday.

Then, their 5-year-old daughter fainted.

“My daughter didn’t know what was going on. She couldn’t breathe,” Dang said, tearfully recalling the girl clutching at her throat and screaming that she couldn’t breathe before fainting.

“My heart just dropped. Just dropped. I thought I lost her at that point. I didn’t even know what to do,” the mother recalled. “Instantly she just fainted. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t imagine losing her.”

Her daughter eventually regained consciousness, and the family waited in the water for four hours before they were rescued.

Dang expressed gratitude to the residents who came to her family’s rescue and got them to an airport.

“The Hawaiian people. They gave us hope. They saved us. Without them, we would not be alive,” she said.

Kula man spent 12 hours battling fire near his home

Ross Hart, a 36-year resident of Kula in Maui’s upcountry, told CNN he tried to fight the fire in the ravine behind his house for more than 12 hours before it was clear it was time to go.

Hart, and volunteers and firefighters who were fighting the flames alongside him, were already facing ferocious winds that were hurling embers and setting the brush ablaze.

Then, the water ran out, Hart said.

“We got out when we ran out of water and the fire just took over,” Hart said.

Hart later returned to find that all that was left of the home where he raised his four children was an unrecognizable mangled pile of metal and ash.

He paced around his property putting pieces of metal into piles on Tuesday. But he wasn’t alone for long.

A crew of volunteers packed into pickup trucks pulled into his driveway offering to help. The group of locals told CNN they’ve been driving around Kula where little aid has arrived.

“People out here call it coconut wireless. And coconut wireless has been very strong and has united together over this time,” said Jace Kennedy, a Kula resident who arrived to help Hart.

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