The death toll from the Maui wildfires rose to 67 on Friday as search teams combed through the smoldering ruins of Lahaina, and Hawaiian officials sought to determine how the inferno spread so rapidly through the historic resort town with little warning.
The fires became the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history, surpassing that of a tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960, a year after Hawaii joined the United States.
Officials have warned that search teams with cadaver dogs could still find more dead from the fire that torched 1,000 buildings and left thousands homeless, likely requiring many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.
“Nobody has entered any of these structures that have burned down and that’s where we unfortunately anticipate that the death toll will rise significantly,” U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told MSNBC.
He later told CNN that Lahaina resembled a bombed-out war zone where the heat melted engine blocks.
The Lahaina fire that spread from the brush to town was still burning but 85% contained, Maui County said in a statement. Two other wildfires on the island were 80% and 50% contained.
Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire.
“I authorized a comprehensive review this morning to make sure that we know exactly what happened and when,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green told CNN, referring the warning sirens.
Officials have not offered a detailed picture of precisely what notifications were sent out, and whether they were done via text message, email or phone calls.
Green described multiple, simultaneous challenges, with telecommunications down and firefighters concentrating on other major wildfires when the greatest threat to Lahaina arose.
In any event, he said, “We will do all that we can to find out how to protect our people more going forward.”
Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said at a Thursday press conference that the fire’s speed made it “nearly impossible” for frontline responders to communicate with the emergency management officials who would typically provide real-time evacuation orders.
“They were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice,” he said, referring to residents of the neighborhood where the fire initially struck.