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Devastation comes to light as Maui residents slowly return to charred remains of historic town

Devastated parts of the historic town of Lahaina on Hawaii's Maui were reopened to residents on Friday, but officials imposed a curfew. The losses stand at 59 dead, with many on the island still unaccounted for.MAX WHITTAKER/NYT

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Incinerated cars crushed by downed telephone poles. Charred elevator shafts standing as testaments to the burned-down apartment buildings they once served. Pools filled with charcoal-colored water. Trampolines and children’s scooters mangled by the extreme heat.

Residents of Lahaina were being allowed back home on Friday for the first time since wildfires that have killed at least 55 people turned large swaths of the centuries-old town into a hellscape of ashen rubble.

Associated Press journalists witnessed the devastation, with nearly every building flattened to debris on Front Street, the heart of the Maui community and the economic hub of the island. The roosters known to roam Hawaii streets meandered through the ashes of what was left, including an eerie traffic jam of the charred remains of dozens of cars that didn’t make it out of the inferno.

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“It hit so quick, it was incredible,” Lahaina resident Kyle Scharnhorst said as he surveyed his apartment complex’s damage in the morning. “It was like a war zone.”

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted the development of the territory-wide emergency system that includes sirens, which are sounded monthly to test their readiness.

But many fire survivors said in interviews that they didn’t hear any sirens or receive a warning that gave them enough time to prepare, realizing they were in danger only when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

“There was no warning. There was absolutely none. Nobody came around. We didn’t see a fire truck or anybody,” said Lynn Robinson, who lost her home in the fire.

Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people had to run for their lives. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations — but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

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Governor Josh Green warned that the death toll would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue. He also said that Lahaina residents would be allowed to return Friday to check on their property and that people would be able to get out, too, to get water and access other services. Authorities set a curfew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Saturday.

“The recovery’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely, because it’s pretty dangerous,” Green told Hawaii News Now.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, at least three wildfires erupted on Maui this week, racing through parched brush covering the island.

The most serious one swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and left it a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes. Skeletal remains of buildings bowed under roofs that pancaked in the blaze. Palm trees were torched, boats in the harbor were scorched, and the stench of burning lingered.

Summer and Gilles Gerling sought to salvage family keepsakes from the ashes of their home. But all they could find was the piggy bank Summer Gilles’ father gave her as a child, their daughter’s jade bracelet, and the watches they gifted each other for their wedding.

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Their wedding rings were gone.

They described their fear as the strong wind whipped and the smoke and flames moved closer. But they said they were just happy that they and their two children made it out alive.

“It is what it is,” Gilles Gerling said. “Safety was the main concern. These are all material things.”

Cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought in Friday to assist the search for the dead, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said.

The blaze is the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

Lahaina’s wildfire risk is well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.

The report also noted that West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand, and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby H. Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in the county, and they are responsible for three islands — Maui, Molokai, and Lanai — he said.

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but the department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said. That means crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas.

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Lahaina resident Lana Vierra was eager to return even though she knows the home she raised five children in is no longer there.

“To actually stand there on your burnt grounds and get your wheels turning on how to move forward — I think it will give families that peace,” she said.

When she fled Tuesday, she thought it would be temporary. She spent Friday morning filling out FEMA assistance forms at a relative’s house in Haiku.

She was eager to see Lahaina but unsure how she would feel once there, thinking about the sheds in the back that housed family mementos.

“My kids’ yearbooks and all that kind of stuff. Their baby pictures,” Vierra said. “That’s what hurts a mother the most.”