Military Assistance to Maui Swells to 700 as Recovery Teams Aid in Identifying Remains

Wildfire recovery efforts in and around Lahaina, Maui
Additional personnel and equipment for the Joint Task Force 50 arrives at Kahului Airport, providing equipment and refueling operations for Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to aid in the wildfire recovery efforts in and around Lahaina, Maui, Aug. 19, 2023 (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Abreanna Goodrich)

The military's mission of aiding first responders on the Hawaiian island of Maui continues to grow, now involving nearly 700 Defense Department personnel and 157 Coast Guardsmen, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters on Tuesday.

In contrast, a week ago, the U.S. military had around 400 service members providing aid to the island after fires swept from the mountains down onto the town of Lahaina, turning homes and buildings into ash, killing at least 114 people and forcing others to flee into the ocean.

Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters at a briefing that military members are assisting the federal and local response with eight missions. One of the key efforts, according to the general commanding the mission, has been to help recover and identify remains of victims.

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On Friday, officials from the joint task force that is coordinating all the military assistance said that six anthropologists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, have joined the response to help in search and recovery operations.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Logan, the man running the task force, told reporters Friday that the anthropologists will “help with the identification and also some forensic DNA testing.”

“We currently have a fatality search-and-rescue team out of our own Hawaii Air National Guard that's been on the ground since we were able to establish operations here,” Logan said, adding that the DPAA team was there to “augment their efforts.”

Local officials have said that anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people remain unaccounted for in the area around Lahaina two weeks after wildfires moved through the town, burning much of it to the ground. At least 114 people have been confirmed dead in the fires as well, though that number appears to be rising, according to local media reports.

“We want to be able to treat them in a dignified manner and give some closure to the families,” Logan said of the remains.

The general explained that he's ordered separate security teams to the town to run checkpoints and prevent unauthorized personnel disrupting the remains recovery processes.

“Unfortunately, there's a lot of motorists that are stopping on the side of the road in order to get a better view and almost treat this like a tourist attraction,” Logan said.

“Once that's complete, and as many of those have been identified or removed as possible, the next phase is to render the area safe,” he added.

Ryder said that one recent addition to the task force has been a Navy three-person mobile diving salvage unit from the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which was set to arrive on the island Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Army's 25th Infantry Division began fuel distribution operations Monday, "providing approximately 1,500 gallons of fuel daily in support of 18 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generators operating along the west coast of Maui," Ryder said.

Last week, the Marine Corps also offered nearby units -- namely the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment -- to help in providing manpower, engineering and water purification. The Corps also offered MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft to help move material and people, and MQ-9 Reaper drones for aerial surveying.

It's not clear if any of those assets are currently being used by the task force.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Military Now Has More Than 400 Troops Aiding Maui After Deadly Wildfires Devastated Island

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