LAHAINA, Hawaii – In a scorched, gray landscape of ash and rubble – between the jagged green ridges of the ancient Pu’u Kukui volcano and the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific – Eric Bartelink stepped carefully around the perimeter of what was once a home.
With hundreds missing after the most destructive U.S. wildfire in a century blazed Aug. 8 through the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, the forensic anthropologist at Chico State, was searching for bone – a femur, a skull, a rib – any identifiable skeletal human remains.
The first scene he and his team surveyed after a callout from searchers with cadaver-sniffing canines turned out to be a false lead: the remains of two dogs.
But as Bartelink and his partner scoured the debris of more structures, they spotted a concentration of bones that was recognizably human: a pelvis, a femur, ribs, vertebrae.
They put on white Tyvek suits and protective gloves, in addition to P100 respirators. Then they bent down with trowels and brushes to sieve the debris through fine mesh screens with holes no wider than one-eighth of an inch. Carefully, they collected tiny fragments – shards of finger and toe bones and tooth roots – and put them inside paper evidence bags.
Their goal was to leave no speck of human remains behind.
“We owe it to the families to locate their loved ones, to recover them as complete as possible and to make sure that they all get identified,” Bartelink said. “Not knowing what happened to a loved one is devastating.”
Three weeks after wildfires burned through Lahaina, the search for human bones – or iwi, as they are known in Hawaiian – has wrapped up, and officials are shifting to clearing toxic debris. But only 115 bodies have been recovered, with fewer than half of them identified.
Still, an unknown number of people remain unaccounted for, with numbers varying depending on the source. The highest is the FBI’s verified list of 388, though questions surround that figure.
Linda Vaikeli, 69, a transplant from Thousand Oaks, California, who settled in Lahaina 26 years ago after falling in love during a vacation, is missing. So is Angelica Baclig, a 31-year-old Filipina immigrant who moved to Maui with her family as a teen and worked in customer service at Foodland grocery store. John “Thumper” McCarthy, 75, a retired sea captain and 40-year fixture of the Lahaina Yacht Club, is also on the FBI’s list. They’re just three of the many, with family and friends waiting to learn their fates.
Local and state officials have warned that the process of discovering who is safe and recovering and identifying the bodies of those who died will take time – and that not all will be accounted for.
“We do have extreme concerns that because of the temperature of the fire, the remains of those who have died, in some cases, may be impossible to recover meaningfully,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There are going to be people that are lost forever.”
“We’re not recovering whole bodies,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said last week at a news conference. “We’re picking up ash, some of it’s crumbling.”
But many experts who have worked on fire disasters in California and traveled to Maui to help with the recovery are hopeful that the remains of most, if not all, victims can ultimately be found and identified.
Five years ago, when the Camp Fire destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise, local officials openly wondered whether they would be able to recover the remains of all the victims. “It is possible the temperatures were high enough to completely consume the body,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on day four.
In the end, 85 bodies were recovered and 84 identified, most of them with rapid DNA technology.
“Regardless of how hot the fire is, or how long it burns, there will always be something remaining – if you know what you’re looking for,” said Ashley Kendell, an associate professor of forensic anthropology at Chico State who took part in the search on Maui.
The challenge of finding remains
Some bodies were found early, on roadways and in cars on Front Street.
Over the last few weeks, nearly 350 emergency personnel, plus 50 canines, have taken part in a mammoth search of the rubble of single-family homes and multistory apartments. Day after day, more than 40 firefighters and ocean safety officers donned snorkel gear to conduct grid searches of four miles of sea near the Lahaina harbor and Front Street after reports that some who fled from the flames into the ocean may have died there.
But the official death toll has not risen since Aug. 21.
On Monday, Green said he did not expect to find survivors in the burn zone or see the toll rise significantly. “The search and rescue, at least on land, is done,” the governor said.
Some who are searching for their loved ones are angry.
“If there are 115 bodies, 388 missing and ‘no survivors to be found,’ how does that list not go up?” said Nichol Simpson, who flew from Thailand to Maui last week to submit a DNA sample and search for her brother, Tony, a 43-year-old EMT. “Even if you are unable to recover the remains, those people existed and they are not to be accounted for amongst the dead?”
The eventual number of the missing could be significantly lower than 388. Last week, when officials released names – a sharp drop from their previous estimate of 1,100 – they urged anyone who knew a person was safe to contact them. In one day, more than 100 people reported someone on the list as safe, but officials have yet to verify that information and publicly update the list.
The task of compiling a list of the missing is complex: Many people have offered partial names or names of people they have not kept in touch with and could have moved out of the area. Some names are duplicated.
“The number of unaccounted persons tends to start high and then will drop over time as duplicated names are resolved and additional people are located alive,” Bartelink said.
Pelletier said Tuesday that 110 “valid” reports of missing persons have been filed with Maui police. Some have emerged alive and well, some have been found dead. More than 50 open cases are actively being worked on.
California has played a pivotal role in the Lahaina operation, deploying a team of more than 100 search and recovery experts. California is not just Maui’s closest neighboring state; it is well practiced in finding and identifying bodies after a mass fire disaster.
Bartelink has helped recover and identify human remains in some of the world’s most gruesome disaster zones, from mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But it was not until five years ago that his focus pivoted to wildfires. He and his team at Chico State spent 21 consecutive days recovering bodies in Paradise, just 14 miles east of their campus. Then they worked on the 2020 Bear Fire and LNU Lightning Complex fires, then the McKinney Fire in 2022.
“It just wasn’t something I expected would be a routine part of my job,” said Kendell, who had never responded to a fire until Paradise, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.
As wildfires scorch ever larger swaths of California as manmade climate change creates warmer, drier conditions, Kendell now conducts annual search and rescue trainings on wildfire response and victim recovery and is the co-editor of a new book, “The Path of Flames: Understanding and Responding to Fatal Wildfires,” a manual for first responders.
“There are more and more widespread wildland fires, not only in California, but in Texas, Colorado, Oregon, in parts of Canada, South Africa and Australia,” Bartelink said.
The risk of wildfires has increased in Hawaii, too, as global temperatures rise and highly flammable, non-native grasses spread on former sugar and pineapple plantations.
The fire that tore through Lahaina burned roughly 3.39 square miles and destroyed 2,200 structures – far less than the 239 square miles and 18,800 structures in Paradise.
But the death toll is higher in Lahaina because the coastal Hawaiian town is a dense urban environment, with tiny lots crammed with clusters of residences housing multiple generations of families. Officials also gave fewer warnings and allegedly blocked roads because of downed power lines, slowing or stopping people trying to flee the flames.
In the aftermath, Kendell said, it is important to be diligent about recovering remains and not rush.
“It’s a painstaking process that involves gathering so much information, gathering reference samples for DNA,” Kendell said. “You want to make sure that you are making those IDs, you are recovering everyone who perished in the fire. It’s just not something that you can speed up unfortunately.”
The anthropologists have worked in so many disaster zones, they’re used to compartmentalizing. They focus on the debris, not the toll of human suffering.
“When you’re out at a scene, you’re not really thinking too much about it,” Bartelink said. “You’re just trying to do your job and making sure that you aren’t missing any victims.”
Still, he said, it felt jarring to work on a disaster on a tropical island.
After working long hours in the charred ruins, he drove back to a hotel, past golden beaches with palm trees and an ocean dotted with surfers and luxury catamarans.
“You see tourists doing their things and that that just looks weird,” Bartelink said. “You’re like, ‘OK, I was just in this kind of hellscape.’ ”
The science of recovering bones
The fire that ravaged Lahaina flattened one-story homes to 6 inches.
Everything turned grayscale, with few landmarks left other than charred metal shells of cars and cinder block walls jutting out of the debris like gravestones.
To the untrained eye, bone can resemble drywall or foam and insulation and other building materials.
“Burn bone, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for, looks just like everything around it,” Kendell said.
A forensic anthropologist can usually spot human remains from a few feet away by circling a residence, looking for coiled metal bed springs or bathroom tiles – anything that might indicate a known places of refuge like bedrooms, bathrooms and living rooms – that could lead to a concentration of bone. “We have never found anyone in a kitchen,” Bartelink said.
Contrary to popular belief, bones do not turn to ashes in extreme heat.
When a person receives ashes of a loved one from a funeral home, the bones have been cremated in a furnace for two hours at up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. That leaves bone fragments that are then put in a mechanical mill and pulverized to dust, said Vyto Babrauskas, a researcher in fire safety science and president of consulting firm Fire Science and Technology Inc.
In a wildfire, a house burns for about an hour at 1,800 degrees at its hottest point, near the ceiling, Babrauskas said. But human remains would likely be found near the floor level, which is closer to 1,300 degrees – cooler than a funeral furnace.
“We would expect to get some reasonable recovery of the remains – probably enough to identify them,” Babrauskas said.
Depending on the intensity and longevity of the fire, burnt bone tends to be black or white.
First, bone blackens or chars. Charred bone starts to lose its organic matter but will sometimes yield DNA. Then it turns into calcine bone that’s grayish white and brittle with no organic matter.
Some parts of the skeleton are likely to yield more DNA than others. Thicker bones, like the femur and humerus, tend to better withstand heat. Bones around the torso – the lower spine and pelvis area – are more protected by tissues, fats and muscles that are good for DNA sampling.
After recovery comes identification.
With new rapid DNA technology, investigators no longer have to send all their material to labs with sophisticated equipment, highly skilled technical operators and huge backlogs – a process that can take months or years.
Among the experts that California deployed to Maui are Kim Gin, the former Sacramento County coroner who used rapid DNA technology to identify Camp Fire victims, and Lt. Jarrett Morris of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, who used the same method after the Conception dive boat fire killed 23 people in 2019.
The Camp Fire was the first mass casualty disaster to use the ANDE Rapid DNA system to compare the DNA of remains with the DNA of close family members.
A sample – a tiny fragment of bone or an oral swab – is put into a chip a little bigger than a computer hard drive, which is then inserted into a black box that is an air compressor and computer that performs data interpretation. Within 96 minutes, the system can develop a DNA profile.
Only 22 Camp Fire victims were identified using conventional methods, including fingerprints, dental records and surgical devices, such as knee replacements, breast implants and pacer machines, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. A far greater number, 62, generated DNA IDs.
“If there’s bones or tissue available, DNA can be abstracted from it,” Morris said.
After the Conception Fire, officials were able to identify all the victims within 10 days.
“We knew who was on that boat, we had a manifest, so we knew where to start,” Morris said. “In this incident, we don’t know exactly who we’re dealing with. We don’t know exactly where they were, where they came from, if they had moved from one place to another.”
Lahaina is also a more complicated site for identification than Paradise because its historic downtown on the water’s edge was a bustling tourist site with a harbor, museums, galleries, bars and souvenir stores.
Ultimately, Morris said, not all the bodies may be identified by rapid DNA technology. In challenging cases, in which bones are severely burnt, traditional labs can carry out more advanced abstraction of the DNA.
The final challenge is getting family members to provide DNA samples.
Collecting a DNA sample is a straightforward process, requiring a simple buccal swab rubbing a Q tip six times on the inside of each cheek.
So far, just over 120 relatives of the Lahaina missing have come forward to provide DNA samples – significantly lower than in other major disasters. After the Camp Fire, 255 people provided DNA.
“We are still below where we had hoped to be,” said Maui Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Martin, who is running the Family Assistance Center in Kaanapali. The more family members who provide samples, he said, the more chance officials have of identifying a body.
Lahaina is home to a high number of immigrants – nearly a third of residents are foreign born and 40% are Filipino – which means a significant proportion of family members who can provide DNA samples live abroad and face hurdles in getting swabs to the island.
Some family members may be displaced and unaware of the need to provide samples. Others may fear their DNA will go into state and federal databases.
Martin and other officials have stressed repeatedly on local news that DNA samples will be used only to identify those who perished in the wildfire.
“The only thing that their DNA is used for is identifying their loved ones,” he said. “That’s it.”
After days scouring the burn zone, Bartelink said he hoped the remains yielded genetic DNA and more families come forward to provide swabs. Only then can the missing be accounted for.
“The closure process often starts with just knowing what happened, where were they found, making sure that they’re identified,” he said. “We really are doing this for the families.”