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Pet carriers are stacked outside the Maui Humane Society in Lahaina, Hawaii. Image Credit: AP

Animal rescue workers have not been allowed into the burned area in Maui for two weeks to search for pets that may have survived wildfires this month - and now they say time is probably running out to find the animals alive.

A cadre of animal services workers from across the country assembled in Maui for a routine search-and-rescue operation, but they were surprised to be denied access to the burn zone, people involved told The Washington Post.

On Saturday, a day after receiving questions from The Post, a Maui County spokesperson said the administration was planning to have the Hawaii National Guard escort members of the Maui Humane Society into the burn zone on that afternoon.

The ready-to-go effort to find animals had been effectively canceled by authorities, who have cited the ongoing search for human remains at the burn site and hazardous conditions as they've banned entry into the Lahaina disaster zone. Animal rescuers, however, said trained technicians are normally allowed into disaster zones.

County officials rebuffed attempts to propose solutions, said John Peaveler, a Veterinarians Without Borders disaster response specialist who helped the Maui Humane Society coordinate the response. Critical days to save injured pets have been lost, and volunteers who couldn't carry out their mission have begun leaving the island.

"We were provided access, and it was revoked within the first day," Katie Shannon, a spokesperson for the Maui Humane Society, said Friday.

Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin said that it had been unsafe for people to enter the area and that the county now "can move forward with it."

"One of the difficulties that we faced early on was not just that the structures were unsafe but any free search throughout the area was a challenge," Martin said. "It's clearly not, for us, a situation that we could cite standard work, because we've never been in any situation like this."

More than 1,300 pets were unaccounted for after the fire, according to the humane society. Now, with each day that passes, it becomes more challenging for injured, burned or dehydrated animals to survive in the desolate Lahaina disaster zone, advocates say. Peaveler said there was a "closing window" to rescue them.

Sightings of stray animals in and around the Lahaina area - many documented on Facebook groups, where residents are urgently trying to find out whether their pets survived - have been fueling anguish over the stymied efforts.

"We need professional rescue people [going] into that field with traps and food to get the live animals out," said Melody Law, a Maui resident who runs an animal rescue and protested outside the county's emergency operations center last week. "That's what we want. That's what the community wants."

The wildfire, the deadliest in modern U.S. history, killed at least 115 people; hundreds have been reported missing. It destroyed the town of Lahaina, where the disaster area remains closed by Maui County to all but authorized personnel searching for human remains.

It is typical, however, for trained animal crews to enter disaster areas, emergency responders said. The humane society and others have confirmed that animals are in the disaster zone; some have been reported by the crews inside, and residents have photographed them around the perimeter.

"I've never seen professional animal rescue teams locked out before," said Mike Merrill, who runs the group Florida Urgent Rescue and has responded to disasters including the February earthquake in Turkey that killed nearly 60,000 people. He was not on the ground in Maui. "This is mind-boggling and unprecedented."

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Dozens of volunteers showed up at the shelter to assist. Image Credit: Maui Humane Society

Martin said the county had aimed to adhere to best practices, and she noted that crews in the burn zone had relayed some animal sightings to the Maui Humane Society for rescue, saying that if they saw animals they reported or rescued them.

Before the county said it would escort workers into the burn zone, animal advocates acknowledged the sensitivity of the search for human remains, but they questioned local and state authorities' decision-making.

"If it's going to take weeks or months for the people to be uncovered," said Maria Jose, a Big Island veterinarian who flew to Maui a few days after the fire, "it just doesn't make sense to let the animals die during that period."

A halted response

The decision to keep the disaster site closed has caused broader frustration among Lahaina residents who want to return to their burned homes more than two weeks after the fires. It is among county and state officials' steps that have drawn criticism from residents, who have said they didn't receive emergency warnings and criticized government aid as slow.

The state, county and federal governments have said they are working quickly in the aftermath of the fires, with hundreds of workers on the ground. In news releases, Maui County has threatened arrest for anyone trespassing in the disaster zone. It has detailed "significant hazards" there, including toxic chemicals and unstable buildings.

The search for the dead is difficult and painstaking, requiring forensic anthropologists to sift through ash for burned bone, tissue and other remains.

The situation is unusual because so many people were killed in a relatively small area, meaning their remains may be "mixed into the ashes," said University at Buffalo professor Natalie Simpson, a disaster operations researcher who was not involved with the Maui response.

"What might be going wrong here is that they are still not confident they have absolutely found every evidence of human remains, and . . . they're treating it more like a crime scene just in case," she said before the county told The Post that it would escort rescuers.

Simpson said it was a "misstep" for the authorities not to, at minimum, swiftly find compromises with the animal rescuers, such as allowing them in to leave food and water or opening some areas for searches.

Animal rescue volunteers had poured into Maui after Aug. 8 and 9, but many have left after being restricted from the zone.

Veterinarians and rescue groups ended up with little to do, said Jose, the veterinarian from the Big Island. She said she visited burn zones on Aug. 12 and 13, when animal rescuers were initially allowed into Lahaina, but county authorities kicked her crew out.

When Jose came back Aug. 17, vets "were basically just relegated to taking in animals that good Samaritans would find on the periphery," she said.

On Aug. 18, the tension deepened when Hawaii Adjutant General Kenneth Hara wrote on Facebook and the platform X, formerly Twitter, that emergency responders hadn't seen stray animals in flyovers or on the ground.

"This disaster is different because the impact area is much more dangerous, human remains recovery is ongoing, and there are no stray animals," Hara wrote.

He was responding to a social media post that he characterized as incorrectly blaming him for the lack of animal rescue; he said he doesn't control access to Lahaina. But his assertion that no animals were in the burn zone outraged some residents.

On Saturday, Hara clarified his comments in a statement to The Post, saying he had not seen animals during three trips to the zone.

On Aug. 19, Maui County said recovery personnel in Lahaina had been told to report animal sightings to the county's emergency operations center, which would pass the report to the Maui Humane Society. It has since reported capturing some animals in the burn zone that way.

The humane society has followed the county's directives and aligned with its protocol, Shannon said Friday. Asked by The Post on Saturday whether the humane society had been notified that the county would allow its members to be into the burn site, she did not immediately respond.

Outside the burn zone, the organization has an extensive operation to collect donations, provide veterinary care, hand out pet food, help livestock and shelter animals.

"We understand the sensitivity of human lives needing to be recovered. But we also understand that animals are a part of families and we want people to be able to continue to have hope," she said Friday.

"People deserve closure," Shannon added.

A ticking clock

In addition to more than 1,300 lost-pet reports, the humane society has received nearly 200 rescued or deceased animals since the fire began, Shannon said. About 40 pets have been reunited with their owners through the humane society.

Rescuers on the ground and observers said that it's impossible to estimate how many animals could be in the burn zone and that many are probably hiding. Search-and-rescue crews have a standard procedure for counting and tracking animals in a disaster area but were unable to carry it out on Maui, Peaveler noted.

Jose, the veterinarian, says it's improbable that most animals in the disaster zone will show themselves to forensic crews, which include cadaver dogs that could scare traumatized pets. Animals need trained personnel to catch them, rescuers said.

The humane society and others said animals are living in the zone. Some residents have been taking food to the perimeter of the burn area each night, where they see and photograph cats. Sightings are reported daily, according to Merrill, who said he had received 30 reports Thursday. Local animal rescuers have created a list of pets believed to be alive, said Law, the Maui resident.

Some know their pets are out there. One woman saw a photo of her cat in the news. Another's dog was seen by neighbors, Law said, and a third has electronic trackers on her cats that keep pinging from the burn zone.

The clock is ticking on rescues. All the animal workers interviewed by The Post agreed that it would be difficult for injured or burned animals to survive much longer. Some have probably died already, they said, and others could need a swift rescue.

But rescuers say it is still possible to save survivors, making the mission urgent.

"If you can reunite somebody, that's such a huge thing," Peaveler said. "It's about the only good news that can come out of the story at this point."