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After massive wildfires in Maui, officials say the death toll has risen to at least 80

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we begin with a grim marker that speaks to the level of tragedy and loss in Hawaii. Officials in Maui report that the death toll has reached at least 80 people after fast-moving wildfires swept across the island this week. Search-and-rescue efforts continue. Hundreds of people are unaccounted for. NPR's Jason DeRose is in Maui. Jason, thanks for being with us.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Morning.

SIMON: Such difficult news. Please tell us about the latest developments.

DEROSE: Well, Scott, multiple wildfires are continuing to burn around the island, but things are a bit more under control than they were earlier in the week. Residents in affected areas are being allowed back into their neighborhoods if they can show proof that they live there. But sadly, some of them are returning to find only the burnt remains of their homes. There are daily curfews - 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. - in the burn areas. And I should point out that in the western part of the island, there's still no power, no water and there isn't expected to be for some time.

SIMON: I understand you visited a shelter there in Kahului. Could you tell us about that?

DEROSE: Well, Scott, this is an impromptu shelter at the Maui High School started by volunteers from the community and from the school itself. So the gym, like most school gyms, has a shower for folks where they can clean up. There are cots set up for sleeping. They're handing out food, making sure everyone is hydrated. It's been really hot here. Friday was 85 degrees and quite humid. They also have about 300 people staying there. And the Red Cross has started to take over running things. California resident Vesta Sung was vacationing here with her daughter when the fires broke out. She also happens to be a trained Red Cross volunteer.

VESTA SUNG: It's easy to have these bottlenecks. And I know, for myself, I can feel really fearful because there's no escape. When there's fires in LA County, Orange County, you know, California is big. I don't even need to go to another state to escape, right? But here, I really felt every corner where we had just come from was on fire.

DEROSE: Now, Scott, an example of that bottleneck - a bad traffic accident yesterday shut down access to the western burn areas for much of Friday afternoon, even for rescue workers. Now, this shelter is in transition as things are becoming a bit more organized. That's creating some frustration for those folks who came earlier in the week just to volunteer, to help out, when it was a community effort.

SIMON: And why frustration, Jason?

DEROSE: Well, you know, on Wednesday and Thursday, folks showed up. They brought food. They brought water. Doctors came to see if people needed help. But now they have to go through official channels to volunteer. We spoke with one doctor who'd been helping earlier in the week. But by Friday, he was being told, no, you have to go register with the Red Cross. And it's not been easy to talk with victims or volunteers. Reporters aren't allowed in the shelter. But we did speak with one evacuee outside who showed us videos on her phone of how quickly the fire escalated. In just a matter of minutes - she and her boyfriend got out safely - but their home was completely destroyed.

SIMON: Jason, from the conversations you have been able to have, how do people seem to be holding up?

DEROSE: Well, people are tired. They're visibly tired. Their voices are tired. Volunteers are tired and sad. And, you know, this is just beginning, since many people at the shelter aren't waiting to go back home because they no longer have homes to go back to. But I want to tell you about this wonderful moment of lightness Friday afternoon at the shelter. Out in front of the gym there, people have set up this little play area for kids where there are toys and games. And at one point in the midst of all this tragedy and destruction and death, someone brought a bubble machine. So the whole front of the school gym was covered with these tiny bubbles floating in the air, and you could see the little kids dancing for joy.

SIMON: Oh, what a beautiful moment. NPR's Jason DeRose in Maui, thanks so much.

DEROSE: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
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