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Maui's wildfire sets a deadly record

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

In the last century, the U.S. has not seen a more deadly wildfire than the one which just destroyed parts of Maui in Hawaii. Ninety-three people have been confirmed killed, and officials say that number will likely keep going up. More than 2,200 homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed. But in all the destruction, local residents are banding together to move massive amounts of food and water for those in need. NPR's Lauren Sommer is in Maui and joins us now. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: So, Lauren, this fire has now surpassed the fatalities caused by California's Camp Fire, which hit the town of Paradise in 2018. What can you tell us about the search efforts for the victims in Maui?

SOMMER: Yeah, the process is still very much ongoing. Yesterday, Maui's police chief said only 3% of the burned area has been covered by teams with search dogs. More of those teams are arriving on the island. But, you know, access to the side of Maui around Lahaina, which saw most of the destruction, has been really limited, even for residents who live there.

ESTRIN: Wow. So part of Maui is restricted. What is the experience like for people who live there?

SOMMER: There's been a huge amount of frustration. The checkpoint line to get in yesterday was hours long, a huge line of cars. And that's where I met Rachel Carter (ph). She lives in Lahaina and fled the flames with her son.

RACHEL CARTER: It's hard to talk about it when you're watching, you know, people running away and burning and getting burned. And you don't know where you're going to stay, what you're going to do, if you're even going to have food.

SOMMER: She got out of Lahaina and has been waiting to get back in to see what happened to her home. And her car was actually packed up with supplies for her community, like food and bottled water.

CARTER: They told us that we weren't allowed to get in, that they shut it down. So now we have all these supplies to take care of our people and the people who are stuck and no way to get it through to them.

ESTRIN: My goodness. So is there such a huge need for food and supplies for residents?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, many residents there have spent days without power. So, you know, people's food is spoiling and the tap water still isn't considered safe to drink. State officials are providing some supplies. You know, FEMA is arriving in increasing numbers too. But the rest of Maui has really rallied to help them. You know, right on the waterfront near that checkpoint, there were dozens of volunteers loading crates of food and water into trucks. They've actually been able to negotiate access with emergency officials.

ESTRIN: OK, so you have this monumental effort to get supplies to residents. And that's - you know, you have officials, but also just volunteers. Talk more about those efforts.

SOMMER: Yeah, that group - one of the organizers, John Kempf told me that the hard part is actually getting the supplies out in the community there, you know, not just to these centralized checkpoints that are in the area.

JOHN KEMPF: A lot of the locals are just bunkering down in their huis (ph). They're gathering their families together and just staying put 'cause they don't have any Wi-Fi or power.

SOMMER: Kempf says, you know, that volunteer group came together really informally. It's actually a WhatsApp texting group. And every day, more and more people have just been showing up to help.

KEMPF: So just to see the community come together with no hesitation, from where this was two days ago to where it is now is just a testament to, like, the heart of these people to take care of their brothers and sisters in this island.

SOMMER: You know, I've covered a lot of wildfires, and I've never seen this kind of volunteer groundswell before. I mean, the roads are just filled with people loading water and food and donations into trucks. It's a really close-knit island. And people here have really taken disaster response into their own hands, and they're filling that need for each other.

ESTRIN: NPR's Lauren Sommer in Maui. Thank you so much, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.