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Wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui ravage the town of Lahaina


The death toll from Maui's wildfires is now at 96 people and rising.


Twenty seven hundred homes and buildings were destroyed. The community of Lahaina was at the center of the destruction, and access to the burned area has been limited until now. NPR's team in Maui got a look at the damage for the first time.

FADEL: And NPR's Lauren Sommer is there now. Good morning, Lauren.


FADEL: So we just recounted the death toll, the physical damage from these wildfires, the country's deadliest in the last century. But you're there. Describe for me what that looks like, feels like.

SOMMER: Yeah, one of the first things that hits you is just the smell. I mean, walking around, there's a charred smell that kind of burns your nose. And it's fair to say that most of Lahaina itself is razed to the ground. I mean, producer Jonaki Mehta and I drove just above Front Street, which is the heart of the downtown. And the buildings are gone. We saw burned-out cars, downed power lines. It's clear that this fire burned extremely fast and hot. It was fueled by those extreme winds. And the hills around town that didn't burn are still covered in dry grass, you know, about knee high. So it's clear there was a lot of flammable material.

FADEL: So for those people who did survive, so much is lost. How are they holding up? Is there power, water?

SOMMER: Right. There's a number of centers around where residents are gathering to get supplies. We visited one where residents can get a hot meal. You know, there were stacks of bulk goods - bottled water, diapers, bags of dog food. We talked to folks who said the supply has gotten better in the last few days, in part because there's been a network of volunteers, you know, caravanning supplies up here. But there are still neighborhoods without power or drinkable water.

FADEL: At this point, are people able to go back and assess the damage on their homes, their property?

SOMMER: Yeah. We met one resident who lost his home, Chris Arnold. He and his family, including five puppies, escaped the fire with just minutes to spare. You know, he said there were embers raining down on them as they left. Their neighborhood is still barricaded, but one of his kids returned to look through the remains of their house. He actually showed us a picture on his phone of what they found. It was an urn with the ashes of his oldest son who passed away and a piece of pottery that he made.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Yeah, it meant everything in the world, and to his mom especially, that being her favorite piece. And the urns - the ashes, which we thought were all gone.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh, being able to recover that for themselves out of the ashes of this fire. This is just the start of what will be a long recovery for so many people. What do people need as they shift from trying to survive to trying to move forward?

SOMMER: I think a big question is just how fast this community can rebuild - right? - and come back together. Arnold actually works in the insurance industry, and he's concerned that people won't know what they're entitled to from insurance companies.

ARNOLD: With the amount of time that it's going to take to rebuild this town and the planning, there's going to be a couple years - most people's insurance policies aren't going to cover additional living expenses for a couple years. So we need a lot of help.

SOMMER: You know, we were actually talking to Arnold on the road above town. The sun was setting. It was just this bright, orange sky over the gray rubble below us. And when it got dark, it was black because there were no lights from the buildings below anymore.

ARNOLD: That's - I've never seen this before.

SOMMER: You know, but Arnold did spot a few lights below. He called it a few sparkles of light. And, you know, I think that glimpse is what's keeping people going.

FADEL: That's NPR's Lauren Sommer in Lahaina. Lauren, thank you. I'm sure we'll be hearing from you more in the days ahead.

SOMMER: Yeah. Thanks so much. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.