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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Death toll from Maui wildfires drops to 97

Lahaina residents and volunteers join hands in prayer at an aid distribution center on Wahinoho Way, Maui, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)  (Robert Gauthier)
By Amber Ferguson and Kyle Rempfer Washington Post

The death toll from the devastating wildfires on Maui dropped unexpectedly to 97 on Friday, a decrease that officials attributed to more precise testing done by military experts who found that some body bags contained human remains belonging to the same people and cautioned that a final count is still not finalized.

The blaze, which began Aug. 8, was the deadliest in modern American history, far outstripping the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, California. Previously, Hawaii officials said at least 115 people died in the fires that quickly subsumed the historic town of Lahaina, but Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) said Friday the confirmed number of deaths has gone down.

“That number dropped a little bit because the Department of Defense and all of their physical anthropologists were able to help us discern better who was in cars or in houses,” Green said in a video statement. “So thank God, fewer people have passed away.”

There are still 31 open reports of missing people. “And not all of those who are lost have been identified,” Green added.

During a news conference Friday, Maui police said they’ve positively identified 74 individuals.

John Byrd, the laboratory director for the Pentagon’s agency in charge of identifying remains of U.S. war dead, said his team is assisting in the process but is not prepared to offer a final count for the number of fatalities.

The effort on Maui is not unlike cataloging remains from war zones, Byrd added, and the initial death toll after disasters sometimes changes as body bags that are collected by different agencies are brought to morgues for DNA testing.

“We look at body bags that come in and we do an initial inventory and we assess how many people are represented there,” Byrd said. “When you do the first tally of all those that have come in, the number tends to be too high because as you begin to do more analysis and examination, you realize that actually you’ve got two bags that were the same person or you have two bags that were the same two people but you didn’t realize that.”

Details about the dead have been slow to surface, but even the bare facts are harrowing. Those who perished were old and young: They were seniors in an independent living complex, and they were children in family homes. Some died fleeing by car, when flames overtook vehicles caught in a traffic jam. Others died in the ocean, where they jumped to escape the inferno that turned the sky blood red and reduced Lahaina’s historic Front Street neighborhood to ashes.

The month-long effort to scour Lahaina for remains has been exhaustive, but still, much remains unknown. Maui medical examiner Jeremy Stuelpnagel said at the news conference Friday that the death toll is “a fluid number; all these numbers are fluid.”

Many of the human remains are bones and identification has had to be done through DNA, dental comparisons and through the serial numbers on surgical hardware implanted when the person was living, like pacemakers, according to Stuelpnagel.

“It does take a lot of time. This is a mass disaster,” Stuelpnagel added. “As we work the cases … things are coalescing into lower numbers.”

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Reis Thebault contributed to this report.