The destruction in Lahaina stretches as far as the eye can see – homes burned down to their foundations, blackened cars, and piles of twisted metal from the fire that burned all the way to the sea. It is in these ruins that search teams will determine the true toll of the disaster.
The wildfires that ravaged Maui last week exploded rapidly, moving at roughly a mile a minute, and giving residents little time to escape as flames consumed the historic town of Lahaina. At least 106 people died – a figure expected to rise significantly in the coming days as crews scour the rubble. A huge operation is under way to find remains and identify them, and officials have asked for patience.
“Everyone wants a number,” John Pelletier, the Maui police chief, said of the death toll. “You want it fast … We’re going to do it right.”
Dozens of emergency workers have mobilized to aid in the search and recovery. Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) teams with cadaver dogs trained to identify the scent of human decomposition have deployed to Lahaina. For days, these groups have worked nearly 12-hour shifts, working their way through every acre of the town in order to bring answers to the thousands of displaced residents and worried families.
“We’re being tasked with searching through the burned areas. The entire group is going, essentially, what would be door-to-door,” said Julie Purcell, a dog handler with a Fema search-and-rescue team. “There’s a lot to get through.”
Crews have searched roughly 30% of the town, according to officials. The state’s governor has warned they could recover as many as 20 bodies a day for the next week. Grief is compounded by residents’ frustrations over authorities’ approach to the disaster, including the lack of warnings during the fire and aid distribution in the days since.
“We feel like we got trapped. No warnings, nothing, no plan, no evacuation, no authority,” said Ana Carolina Penedo, a Lahaina resident who escaped the flames with her mother by rushing into the ocean, where they spent 11 hours. She knew immediately the death toll would be high.
“I knew there were a lot of people who lost their lives,” she said.
As residents await answers and support, crews are searching for remains. Scouring an entire town destroyed by wildfire in painstaking, intensive work.
Typically, search teams approach such disasters by first surveying the damage, talking to residents and gathering information about who is missing and which areas had the least amount of warning, said Tim Houweling, a canine coordinator for a Fema taskforce who worked the Camp fire in Paradise, California. In the recovery operation for that blaze, which killed 85 people in northern part of the state in 2018, crews looked for cars in the driveways of destroyed homes and signs of a disabled person who might have had trouble evacuating, like wheelchair ramps.
At the center of such operations are the dogs who search the debris for human remains. With their powerful olfactory systems and agile bodies, the animals are vital to the search.
“They can get places we cannot,” said Lynne Engelbert, a handler who also worked the Camp fire. “They spread their weight out. It may not be safe for us to walk on rubble piles but they can.”
Handlers are responsible for keeping the dogs rested, fed and ready to work, Houweling said, and protecting them from the dangers of a fire zone, such as downed power lines, propane tanks and pools they could fall into.
In Lahaina, the dogs, including Purcell’s almost 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, Olivia, wear bootees to protect their paws from hotspots from the fire. They search from 6am to 5pm, and at the end of the day, the teams clean the toxic ash from the dogs and prepare to start the search again the next morning. The conditions in such disasters are challenging for dogs and humans alike.
“Most first responders have to compartmentalize,” Purcell said on a lunch break from the search in Lahaina. “There is a lot of hard work no matter what you do. You have to figure out to compartmentalize and deal with that in a way that is healthy for you.”
Purcell and her colleagues have responded to numerous deadly fires, but in Lahaina they have faced a death toll on a level not seen since the Camp fire. Ensuring they find the remains of every person killed in the fire will take time, and they will be there until the job is done, said Eric Darling, another dog handler on the taskforce said.
“Our job is to make sure everybody comes home and that everybody is treated with respect,” Darling said. “The people we are doing the work for and their families.”
On Tuesday, a mobile morgue unit with coroners, pathologists and technicians arrived to help identify the dead.
Pelletier, the Maui police chief, has renewed his appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples.
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