Displaced Maui residents set to return to Lahaina after wildfires

Safety teams were still surveying the charred ruins of Lahaina more than six weeks after a wildfire tore through the island, killing at least 97 people. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio/FEMA/UPI

Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Maui authorities are preparing to allow displaced residents to return to their properties in Lahaina more than six weeks after a deadly wildfire ravaged the island paradise.

A task force in charge of evaluating the destruction completed a comprehensive safety review in the area of Kaniau Road, which is scheduled to reopen Monday to allow residents to see the devastation up close for the first time.

Maui County said it would lift disaster restrictions in Zone 1C from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

Zones have been created to facilitate a systematic and supported return into the disaster area while prioritizing public safety and community security, officials said.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen issued a statement saying he hoped next week's reopening would provide closure to those who lost their livelihoods and loved ones when flames tore through Lahaina on Aug. 8.

"As we make our way through the tragedy of the disaster, this managed re-entry process will give residents a chance to have some closure," Bissen said. "We know how much this means to those affected and I'm grateful that agencies from the county, state and federal levels -- as well as numerous nonprofit groups -- have worked nonstop to be able to reach this significant stage."

Last week, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green announced that the death toll had fallen from 115 to 97 following DNA analysis. However, there were still 31 missing persons while a large number of the dead had yet to be identified.

The region also remains a tinderbox more than a month after the inferno, with flames and ashes still smoldering in rural areas outside Lahaina.

As of Wednesday, the Olinda fire, which consumed 1,081 acres, was about 90% contained; the Kula fire covering 202 acres was 96% contained.

Flames continued to flicker across many hard-to-reach areas of Maui's rugged Upcountry, according to the Maui Fire Department

Meanwhile, officials continued to survey the charred ruins in Lahaina Thursday in an effort to reopen the five-mile impact area where flames destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

County, state and federal officials were still conducting safety reviews in numerous parcels across the 2,170-acre burn zone, which need to be completed before residents can be cleared to come back.

The Environmental Protection Agency was also on site to oversee the disposal of hazardous materials that remain amid the ashes.

Multiple local agencies were on the ground to ensure water quality, sewer function, and general safety standards were in place for electric and gas lines.

"The process to clear each zone for re-entry is a complex one to ensure we do all we can to maximize public safety and well-being as residents access a disaster area that contains hazardous conditions," said Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator for the County of Maui Emergency Management Agency.

Crews planned to provide residents with amenities and emotional support, including water, shade, washing stations, portable toilets, medical and mental health care, free bus transportation from local hotel shelters and language assistance, Oliveira said.

Ahead of the return, officials will hold two community meetings on Friday and Sunday to discuss housing plans, support programs and air quality in the region.

Maui officials have also set up a website for property owners to track which areas they can return to in the coming days.

Vehicle passes will be required to access the burn zone, with property owners and tenants limited to two per dwelling, officials said.

Residents must also appear in person at the Lahaina Civic Center to verify ownership or occupancy of a property to gain access to the burn zone.

At that time, optional personal protective equipment will be handed out to residents, who are allowed to bring guests to the site.