August 11, 2023 Maui wildfire news

By Aditi Sangal, Tori B. Powell, Matt Meyer, Elise Hammond, Chris Lau and Andrew Raine, CNN

Updated 7:54 p.m. ET, August 12, 2023
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10:14 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Displaced Lahaina residents try to locate loved ones while grappling with grief over lost homes

From CNN's Mitchell McCluskey in Maui, Hawaii

Volunteers attend to evacuees from the West Maui wildfires at a shelter set up at the Maui War Memorial in Wailuku, Hawaii, on August 10, 2023.
Volunteers attend to evacuees from the West Maui wildfires at a shelter set up at the Maui War Memorial in Wailuku, Hawaii, on August 10, 2023. Marco Garcia/Reuters

Hundreds of displaced Maui residents have taken shelter at the War Memorial Gymnasium, where the Red Cross, Maui County and other organizations are providing aid and supplies.

The fires have killed at least 67 people on Maui and left many more displaced. 

Many of the residents at the War Memorial Gymnasium came from the historic town of Lahaina and fled with only the clothes on their backs. Some say they have been unable to locate their loved ones.

A grassroots effort to reconnect families has launched in front of the gymnasium, where Post-It notes containing contact information and names are pinned to a board.

Inside the shelter, scores of people have camped out on mattresses on the ground. 

Kathleen Dukes, 46, was born and raised in Lahaina and said it was surreal to see her community in flames.

"I was in a state of shock. It really looks like a ghost town," Dukes said.

Dukes had to leave her elderly mother behind when she fled the fire. She said was first able to speak to her mother on Friday. The home they share is still standing, though an aunt and sister's home was burnt down, Dukes said.

Lynn Robison, 66, lived in the heart of Lahaina, next to the Wharf Cinema Center.

After hearing about the fire, Robison and her friends went to the shoreline near the ocean, in case they needed to jump into the water. The group spent the night sleeping in a grassy patch next to the beach. 

“When we woke up in the morning, everything was destroyed around us,” Robison said, “It was like a war zone.” 

Robison returned to her apartment complex to find it burned to the ground. 

Nelen Cesar, 58, with her husband and three kids, told CNN they arrived at the shelter on Thursday after fleeing their home in Lahaina, where she had lived for more than 30 years. 

Cesar and her family grabbed what they could as they evacuated but were distraught to lose family photographs and mementos from her childhood in the Philippines.

Her daughter returned to the location of the house and sent her pictures showing that it had been razed to the ground. Cesar said the loss is difficult to comprehend. 

"I just want to see the evidence. I'm still hoping and praying it's still there," Cesar said.

7:29 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Maui wildfire death toll rises to 67

From CNN’s Andy Rose

There are now 67 confirmed deaths from the wildfires in Hawaii, the Maui County government announced Friday afternoon.

This officially makes the Lahaina fire Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster in state history, surpassing the 61 confirmed deaths from a tsunami in Hilo in 1960.

“The Lahaina fire is not yet contained,” the government added in a statement.

Some context: Hawaii became a state in 1959, but in 1946 the islands experienced a devastating tsunami that killed 158 people.

6:59 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Hawaii governor says he's ordered a comprehensive review of the emergency response to wildfires

Hawaii's governor has ordered a comprehensive review of the state's actions in the hours after devastating wildfires broke out on the islands earlier this week, including why warning sirens were not used to alert residents on Maui.

"I authorized a comprehensive review this morning, to make sure that we know exactly what happened — and when," Gov. Josh Green told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Green said emergency officials were particularly challenged by the fact that the flames burning near Lahaina — which ultimately built into a firestorm that razed nearly all of the historic town — had died down for a period of time before suddenly reigniting, and firefighters had shifted their focus to other areas on the island.

"The telecommunications were destroyed very rapidly" at that point, Green said, meaning that the tight-knit community was unable to alert one another by phone, as they typically do when there is an emergency. "That communication was cut off," the governor said.

Green said he isn't going to "make any excuse for anyone," but that multiple fires burning at once had created a "very fluid situation across the islands."

Despite those challenges, "we will do all that we can to find out how to protect our people more going forward," Green said.

Some context: Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said Friday that Maui’s warning sirens were not activated.

The statewide public safety warning system has about 400 sirens to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters, according to an agency spokesperson, but "nobody at the state and nobody at the county attempted to activate those sirens based on our records," he said.  

Other layers of the emergency warning system were triggered, however, including mobile phone alerts and messages on televisions and radio stations.

A CNN review of state and local emergency planning documents has also revealed that Hawaii officials had underestimated the deadly threat of wildfires, as recent reports warned officials that funding and preparation for the natural disaster was insufficient.

6:24 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

At least 59 people killed in Hawaii wildfires, governor says

There are now 59 confirmed deaths from the devastating wildfires in Maui, according to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.

The new number is up from the previous confirmed toll of 55 deaths.

All of those deaths occurred out in the open, not inside buildings, "as people were trying to escape the fire," Green told CNN on Friday.

He said that number is expected to climb as search efforts are being conducted. 

“Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities. We do not know, ultimately, how many will have occurred,” Green said.
8:29 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Here's what we know about the federal government's response to the Hawaii fires so far

From CNN Staff

A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii, on Wednesday, August 9.
A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii, on Wednesday, August 9. Ty O'Neil/AP

The federal government has gone into disaster response mode after wildfires destroyed Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii earlier this week.

President Joe Biden issued a federal disaster declaration on Thursday and promised to send whatever is needed to help the recovery.

"We're working as quickly as possible to fight those fires and evacuate residents and tourists. In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers: every asset that we have will be available to them," Biden said as he began remarks at a Veterans Affairs medical center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here’s what we know the federal government has deployed to Hawaii in response to the wildfires so far:

  • FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell traveled to Maui on Friday. She said on Thursday that FEMA was providing meals for 5,000 people for five days.
  • FEMA Region 9 Administrator Bob Fenton, who has been working from Oahu, mobilized an incident response team earlier this week to help with the federal response, a White House official told CNN.
  • Fenton said on Thursday that cadaver dogs from California and Washington were being brought to Maui to help in recovery efforts in affected areas in Lahaina.
  • The FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team is in Lahaina and is equipped to search the interior of burned structures. As of Friday morning ET, the 55 people who had been confirmed dead were all found outside of buildings in Maui because search and rescue teams were not equipped to go into buildings.
  • The Hawaiian National Guard mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue, according to a statement from President Joe Biden.
  • Biden said the Coast Guard and Navy Third Fleet were also supporting response and rescue efforts.
  • The Army provided Black Hawk helicopters to fight fires, per Biden.
  • Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday that more than 100 National Guard personnel had been activated to respond to the fires.
  • Ryder added that three other helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade had also been deployed to assist, in addition to two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters from the Navy Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 37.
  • The Department of Transportation worked with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from Maui, Biden said.
  • Biden’s statement also said the Department of Interior and Agriculture Department were on standby to provide assistance after the fire recovery efforts are completed.
  • Biden also approved a federal disaster declaration on Thursday, which makes federal funding available. That funding includes grants for things like temporary housing and home repairs, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs for individuals and businesses, according to a FEMA news release.
5:04 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Members of Hawaiian congressional delegation will travel to Maui with key Biden administration officials

From CNN's Lauren Fox

Some of Hawaii's congressional delegation will travel to Maui tomorrow with Small Business Administrator Isabella Guzman and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.

The delegation, according to a source familiar with the matter, tells CNN that the focus is twofold: Ensuring that the immediate emergency is dealt with while also helping educate the Biden administration on the long-term support that will be needed not only to rebuild, but to also protect local businesses as the tourism industry takes a serious hit. 

Tourism accounts for about 40% of the Maui economy, the source said, and many of the businesses have just recovered from the effects of Covid, which at least was bolstered by federal support programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program

The source told CNN that the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team is now on site in Maui – and it will deal with the immediate search and rescue operation.

4:58 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Records indicate Maui’s warning sirens were not activated when Lahaina fire began, state says

From CNN's Ray Sanchez

Maui’s warning sirens were not activated when the Lahaina fire began on Tuesday, records show, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

But other layers of the emergency warning system were triggered, including mobile phone alerts and messages on televisions and radio stations, spokesperson Adam Weintraub told CNN on Friday.

"Our review of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency logs indicates that there was no activation of the sirens on Maui during the wildfire incident,” he said in an interview. “Nobody at the state and nobody at the county attempted to activate those sirens based on our records."  

The statewide public safety warning system has about 400 sirens to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters, he said. 

On Maui, the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, there are 80 sirens, according to the county website. 

"It was largely a function of how fast the flames were moving,” he said of the failure to trigger the vaunted all-hazard emergency siren system. “They were trying to coordinate response on the ground, and they had already issued these other alert systems." 

4:47 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Hawaii underestimated the deadly threat of wildfire, records show

From CNN's Isabelle Chapman, Scott Bronstein, Casey Tolan and Allison Gordon

Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters perform aerial water bucket drops in Maui on Thursday.
Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters perform aerial water bucket drops in Maui on Thursday. Hawaii National Guard/Reuters

When Hawaii officials released a report last year ranking the natural disasters most likely to threaten state residents, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic hazards featured prominently. Near the bottom of a color-coded chart, the state emergency management agency described the risk of wildfires to human life with a single word: "low."

A year and a half later, the catastrophic fires that engulfed Maui and the historic town of Lahaina this week have already become the state's deadliest natural disaster in more than six decades, with a fatality count of 55 that is expected to rise. 

Hawaii officials underestimated the deadly threat of wildfires even as they acknowledged a lack of necessary resources to mitigate them, according to a CNN review of state and local emergency planning documents that show how ill-prepared the state was for the disaster. 

One Maui County report on wildfire prevention from 2021 stated that while the number of acres consumed by wildfires had spiked, funds to prevent and mitigate them were "inadequate." The report also stated that the county fire department's strategic plan included "nothing about what can and should be done to prevent fires" — in what it called a "significant oversight."

The report recommended a thorough risk assessment of fire hazards, but it's not clear whether officials heeded the recommendation. 

Other reports over the past five years show authorities knew the risk of fires was increasing and could be exacerbated by hurricane-force winds — like the Lahaina blaze was.

"Fires occurring as a result of and concurrent with another major threat or disaster, such as a hurricane, are particularly challenging," one report stated, with first responders and firefighters stretched to capacity. During this week's fires, Hurricane Dora was hundreds of miles south of Maui, but the storm's winds still fanned flames on the island.

The state emergency management agency's public resources webpage also lays out clear, bullet-point recommendations of what residents should do in the event of a hurricane, tsunami, flash flood or earthquake. At the bottom of the page, the agency includes two short paragraphs about wildfires — with no similar advice on ways to stay safe.

Hawaii and Maui County officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Friday as disaster response efforts continued.

 Read the full investigation

4:26 p.m. ET, August 11, 2023

Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez pledge $100 million to Maui recovery

From CNN’s Andy Rose

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his fiancée are pledging $100 million to recovery efforts in Maui, Lauren Sánchez announced on her Instagram account Friday.

“Jeff and I are heartbroken by what’s happening in Maui,” Sánchez wrote. “We are thinking of all the families that have lost so much and a community that has been left devastated."
She added: "Jeff and I are creating a Maui Fund and are dedicating $100 million to help Maui get back on its feet now and over the coming years as the continuing needs reveal themselves."

Bezos and Sánchez have been together since 2019 and were engaged earlier this year, a source told CNN in May.

Bezos is the executive chair of the Amazon board of directors and owns the Washington Post.