Maui Mayor Richard Bissen says it will take time to clear hazardous waste and make sure building structures are sound before allowing residents to return.

For more than two weeks, Tiare Lawrence has wanted to return to a family home in Lahaina to collect the ashes of one of her uncles.

The remains aren’t the result of the deadly wildfire that ripped through the town on Aug. 8 killing at least 115 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. Rather the ashes are contained in an urn that one of her aunts hid away inside a bathtub before fleeing from the blaze.

“It’s still there,” Lawrence said. “We just can’t get access to go pick it up.”

Hawaii National Guard continue to block entrances to Lahaina town Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. The historical town was destroyed by wildfire on Aug. 8. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Hawaii National Guard members continue to block entrances to Lahaina town Saturday. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The National Guard has barricaded the entrances to the disaster zone as authorities have combed the area for remains of the dead.

That work is nearly complete, according to Maui County officials. But Mayor Richard Bissen has yet to provide an update on when exactly residents will be allowed to return to their homes and sift through the rubble, collecting what memories and personal effects might have survived.

At a press conference Friday, Bissen said the priority has been searching for those who are missing.
There are still hundreds of people who are unaccounted for, and it could take weeks, months or even years to find out what happened to them.

“We are going to go until the experts tell us there’s no more that they can identify or recover,” Bissen said.

Even when the search is over, Bissen said, it still won’t be safe for residents to return.

He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will need to enter the disaster zone and remove toxic and hazardous materials, a process that is already playing out in Upcountry Maui where hundreds of structures were destroyed by the fires in Kula and Olinda.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen looks on while Mahina Martin chief of communications and public affairs repeats a reporter’s question during a press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. The new interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira was announced. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen during a press conference in Wailuku. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For example, he said the Lahaina disaster area is littered with propane tanks that did not explode during the fire. The county is also worried about other dangers, including broken glass, exposed electrical wires and cancer-causing toxins.

“Those things I just want to report will be removed out of the state of Hawaii, not just off of Maui,” Bissen said. “They have locations where they dispose of those items.”

Once the EPA completes its initial cleanup, he said, officials will send inspectors into the disaster zone to test for other dangers.

Bissen said those inspectors will test the air quality and the soil for hazardous materials. They will also check the integrity of the building structures that were left standing after the fire to ensure that they are safe to enter.

“All of those things have to happen first before people that are not suited up can go back into that location,” Bissen said.

Meanwhile, the county issued a press release Saturday identifying two more victims of the Lahaina fire.

Pablo Pagdilao III, 75, and Coleen Jones, 59, both of Lahaina both perished in the blaze. According to the county, that brings the total number of identified individuals to 48.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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