Cadaver dogs from SoCal fire departments are headed to Maui to help search for wildfire victims

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Sunday, August 13, 2023
Cadaver dogs from SoCal headed to Maui to help search for victims
Several cadaver dogs from Southern California fire departments were on their way to Maui to assist in the ongoing search for victims of the devastating wildfires.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Several cadaver dogs from Southern California fire departments on Sunday were on their way to Maui to assist in the ongoing search for victims of the devastating wildfires.

As the death toll from the fire that destroyed the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina climbed to 93, authorities warned that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. The blaze is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Crews with cadaver dogs have covered just 3% of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.

"We've got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles, and it is full of our loved ones," he said, noting that the number of dead is likely to grow and "none of us really know the size of it yet."

Meanwhile, K-9 teams from the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Urban Search and Rescue and the Orange County Fire Authority were being deployed to help. Several of the dogs and their handlers arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday morning, en route to Hawaii.

"We're obviously familiar with the brush fires in California as well," L.A. County Fire Capt. Celina Serrano told reporters at LAX. "But we've kind of been preparing for this for some time, for many years.

"This is what we do," Serrano added. "And so, these dogs have been waiting for their time to shine and to show support for the families out there, bringing some closure."

"Though we don't have a lot of services of anything out here, the community, the locals, ourselves, we are pitching in and taking care of each other," he told his sister via Zoom, which was the first time he was able to talk to her due to spotty cellphone service.

In Lahaina, teams were marking the ruins of homes with a bright orange "X" to indicate an initial search, and "HR" when they found human remains.

Pelletier said identifying the dead is challenging because "we pick up the remains and they fall apart." The remains have been through "a fire that melted metal." Only two people have been identified so far, he said.

During the search efforts, the barks of cadaver dogs alerting their handlers to potential remains echoed over the hot, colorless landscape.

"It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced," Gov. Josh Green said as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. "We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding."

At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, nearly all of them residential. Across the island, damage was estimated at close to $6 billion.

The latest death toll surpassed that of the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.

The wildfires are Hawaii's deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people

The Associated Press contributed to this report.