Destroyed homes and businesses in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 16, 2023.
Destroyed homes and businesses in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 16, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Kahului: President Joe Biden will head to fire-ravaged Hawaii next week to meet with survivors and first responders still hunting for bodies, the White House said Wednesday, as the first victims of the horrific blaze were named.

The fire, which levelled the historic town of Lahaina on Maui, is the deadliest in the United States for more than a century, with the toll expected to grow further over the coming days.

At least 106 people are now known to have died, with a huge swathe of the disaster zone yet to be searched.

Only five victims have been identified, two of whom were named by Maui County officials as Robert Dyckman, 74, and 79-year-old Buddy Jantoc, both from Lahaina.

Jantoc's family described him as a musician who had previously toured with Carlos Santana.

"I'm hoping he was asleep," his daughter-in-law Shari Jantoc said, according to the New York Times. "I hope to God he did not suffer."

Authorities on Maui have begun collecting DNA samples from people whose relatives are missing, in a bid to speed a process hampered by the severity of the fire, which left many bodies charred beyond recognition.

But the task of finding victims is also slow, arduous work, even with the use of dogs specially trained to locate cadavers.

"This is a really difficult search operation," Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters on Wednesday.

"The dogs have to navigate the heat, they have to deal with issues with their paws walking through glass and debris and in these conditions, the dogs require frequent rest.

"I want to be honest with everyone: this is also going to be a very long and hard recovery."

Officials have repeatedly cautioned that the final death toll might not be known for weeks - but is expected to be significantly higher.

Biden 'committed' to Hawaii aid

The White House said Biden and his wife, Jill, will "meet with first responders, survivors, as well as federal, state, and local officials" in Maui on Monday.

"I remain committed to delivering everything the people of Hawaii need as they recover from this disaster," the president wrote on social media.

Biden had quickly declared a "major disaster" in Hawaii after last week's inferno, allowing the deployment of emergency assistance from the federal government, and has talked several times with Hawaii Governor Josh Green.

But he has been criticized by the Republican opposition for what they characterized as a timid response to the fires.

Though he has addressed the disaster in speeches, he did not speak publicly when the death toll soared over the weekend.

The White House said emergency officials had advised that "search and recovery efforts are expected to be at a stage early next week to allow for a presidential visit."

'Shocking to see'

Stories of horrifying escapes continued to emerge, as did more testimony about the lack of official warning of the fast-moving blaze.

Annelise Cochran told AFP she had been reassured when officials said a small blaze in the hills had been contained last Tuesday morning.

But then it suddenly, and dramatically, flared.

"It was very, very fast; shocking to see," the 30-year-old said, adding no evacuation order had been issued.

After trying to flee by car only to find her way blocked by vehicles abandoned by their terrified drivers, some of which had begun exploding in the heat, she realized the ocean was her only escape.

It was hours before she was plucked from the water.

Toxic chemicals

Green, the governor, on Tuesday warned against any attempt at a land grab in the devastated remains of Lahaina, as locals fret that deep-pocketed developers might take advantage of people's desperation and try to buy up plots.

Meanwhile, residents desperate to get back to check on the homes they fled have expressed frustration at bans that have prevented them from getting into Lahaina.

Officials warned of the dangers of unstable buildings and potential airborne toxic chemicals in the area.

Questions are being asked about authorities' preparedness and response to the catastrophe.

Some fire hydrants ran dry in the early stages of the wildfire, and multiple warning systems either failed or were not activated.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Hawaiian Electric, the state's biggest power firm, claiming the company should have shut off its power lines to lower the risk of fire.