Chicago-area volunteers to assist with Maui wildfire recovery efforts

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Entire communities in the Hawaiian island of Maui were destroyed by hurricane-fueled wildfires that have already claimed 36 lives, marking the deadliest U.S. wildfire in five years.

Multiple neighborhoods were obliterated, hundreds of buildings were lost and thousands were forced to evacuate as clouds of smoke enveloped the air. As of Thursday afternoon, firefighters continued to battle the stubborn flames, while some search and rescue efforts remained in limbo. Some teams of rescuers weren't able to access certain areas because the fire lines weren't secure.

As many people are fleeing Maui and trying to get a flight out, some volunteers with the American Red Cross are heading there to assist those whose lives have been uprooted. Paul, a volunteer from south suburban Frankfort, explained that he'll be working with a fulfillment group, which will load essential supplies and deliver them to those in need.

“What we are probably going to see is a lot of people in deep distress," Paul said. "What they have experienced is the worst day of their life.”

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”

“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”

Wildfires aren’t unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze and, once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer.” Smith said.

"What we are probably going to see is a lot of people in deep distress," Paul said. "What they have experienced is the worst day of their life.”

The fires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It’s the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. While traveling in Utah on Thursday, Biden pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”

Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on the island. “Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii. But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.

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