By J. Chess
Identifying the Last Victim
The final identified victim from the devastating wildfire that engulfed the historic Lahaina town in Maui in August is Lydia Coloma, a 70-year-old woman. She and several of her family members, including her husband, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew, tragically lost their lives in the fire.
Lydia hailed from the Ilocos Sur province in the Philippines. Her sister-in-law, Tina Acosta, based in Honolulu, expressed relief over the identification, although she admitted to not knowing why it took so long. “We were waiting,” she said.
The Identification Process
Identifying the victims from this horrific wildfire, the deadliest in the U.S. in over a century, has been a challenging and lengthy process. Forensic experts and cadaver dogs have had to painstakingly sift through the ash, searching for bodies that may have been cremated. Meanwhile, authorities have also been collecting DNA samples from the victims’ family members to aid in the identification.
In fact, it was the DNA testing that allowed officials to revise the death toll downward from 115 to at least 97 in September. The death toll subsequently rose slightly as some victims succumbed to their injuries or as additional remains were discovered.
The Aftermath of the Fire
The wildfire left a deep scar on Maui, and more broadly on Hawaii. Some residents found themselves trapped in their cars, while others had to take the drastic measure of jumping into the ocean or attempting to run to safety. The blaze destroyed over 2,000 buildings, most of them homes, and caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.
The Investigation and Recovery
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Early reports suggest downed power lines may have ignited dry, invasive grasses, sparking the fire.
As the town recovers, authorities have begun clearing debris from residential lots and have reopened the burn zone to residents and homeowners who lost their properties. The waste is being wrapped in thick industrial plastic before the Army Corps of Engineers transports it to a temporary debris storage site south of Lahaina.
Impact on the Community
Nearly half a year after the disaster, around 5,000 displaced residents are still living in hotels or other short-term accommodations around Maui. The tragedy has highlighted the need for zoning and other changes to prevent housing costs in Lahaina, already a costly place to live, from becoming prohibitively expensive for many after the rebuilding process.
As the community continues to heal and rebuild, the memory of Lydia Coloma and the 99 other known victims will remain a poignant reminder of the tragedy and resilience of Lahaina..