By Mimi Nguyen Ly
Amid wildfires not yet contained in Hawaii, at least 80 people have been confirmed dead and a new fire has also since broken out in West Maui.
The new fire has triggered the evacuation of people in the community of Kaanapali late Friday, police announced on Facebook.
“At this time, there are no restrictions to exit the west side. Our priority is to ensure the safety of the community and first responders. We will allow entrance once it is safe to do so,” according to the announcement.
On the same day, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a public health emergency. The HHS declaration gives the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to have more flexibility in meeting emergency health needs of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. It comes after President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii on Thursday.
“We will do all we can to assist Hawaii officials with responding to the health impacts of the wildfires,” said Secretary Xavier Becerra in a news release.
“We are working closely with state and local health authorities, as well as our partners across the federal government, and stand ready to provide additional public health and medical support.”
In a late evening statement, Maui County said that the death toll had risen to 80, making the fire Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster in state history. The record was previously held by a tsunami in Hilo in 1960, which resulted in 61 confirmed deaths.
“The Lahaina fire is not yet contained,” the county noted in a statement earlier in the day.
Update of Wildfires
In a 3 p.m. update on Friday, it said firefighters continue “battling flare-ups in all three fires” that continue to rage. “The Lahaina fire is 85 percent contained. The Pulehu/Kihei fire is 80 percent contained. The Upcountry Maui fire is 50 percent contained,” the announcement reads.
“Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, said on Friday.
As many as 1,000 people are still missing in Maui, and can’t be contacted, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said at a press conference on Thursday. However, he noted the number is “very fluid,” and it doesn’t indicate the number of deaths.
Some people may be unable to contact or be contacted by officials because they are in a shelter with power and cell service down, he added.
The wildfires, predominantly in Maui, started on Tuesday and took island residents by surprise, with many survivors having to flee with just the clothes on their backs. It was partly fueled by dry conditions and strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far south of Hawaii, according to the National Weather Service.
Thousands of people have been displaced and were airlifted out of Maui, and emergency shelters and hospitals are overwhelmed.
At least 1,700 structures were razed by flames in Lahaina, a historic town in western Maui that was home to around 12,000 people. Much of the town has been wiped out.
Residents of Lahaina were briefly allowed to return to their homes on Friday, but Maui Police soon shut down the main road into the town in both directions, just before 4 p.m. local time, according to an announcement on Facebook.
In a slightly earlier announcement, Maui Police explained that the road to Lahaina “was opened for local residents to provide medication and supplies to their families that remain in homes on the west side and in need of such assistance outside of the fire/biohazard zone.”
But many people were parking on the Lahaina Bypass and walking into nearby areas that were “locked down due to hazardous conditions and biohazards,” police noted, and warned that if people continued to disobey orders to stay out of the area, entry would be closed to the public and only emergency personnel can enter the area.
By late Friday, police confirmed that only authorized personnel are allowed to enter the burnt-out disaster zone in Lahaina, and violators would be “removed from the area and may face arrest.”
Don’t Drink Water: Maui County
Residents in upper Kula and Lahaina affected by wildfires who may still have running water have been warned by the Maui County water agency on Friday not to drink their water, including boiled water, and only take short, lukewarm shows in a well-ventilated room to avoid exposure to possible chemical vapors.
“Instead of tap water, customers are advised to use only bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, making ice, and preparing food,” the announcement reads.
“Failure to follow this advisory could result in illness, according to the department and state Department of Health,” it continues. “Due to the wildfires, structures were destroyed and some areas of the water system lost pressure. Those conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other volatile organic chemicals, to enter the water system.”
Agency director John Stufflebean told The Associated Press that hundreds of pipes have been damaged by the wildfires. Crews are now shutting off valves for damaged pipes to avoid further contamination, and the Department of Water Supply will subsequently flush the system, which could take a few days, he added.
After that, officials plan to test for bacteria and an array of volatile organic compounds, following recommendations from the Hawaii State Department of Health, Mr. Stufflebean said.
Maui gets drinking water from streams and aquifers. It has a large public water system, but some people are on private, unregulated wells.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.