Maui wildfire survivors in unrelenting search for loved ones despite waning odds

The days of waiting have become harder and harder as the odds grow longer and longer, but Kevin Baclig remains undeterred in his search for his wife and her parents, who have been missing since Aug. 8, when a wildfire engulfed and flattened the Hawaiian town of Lahaina.

He has gone looking from one shelter to another, hoping strangers might recognize the faces on the flyers he brings with him.

Baclig, 30, has driven back and forth to Lahaina, desperately scouting for anything that might lead him to his wife Angelica and her parents, Joel and Adela Villegas. Six other relatives who lived next door also remain unaccounted for.

“I’m not going to give up until I see them,” he said. “Of course I’m hoping to find them alive. … What else can I do?”

Even as he tries to sound optimistic, his voice is subdued.

“I’ve been searching and searching — in Lahaina, everywhere,” Baclig said, speaking in Ilocano, a dialect of the northern Philippines.

Officials have no firm number on missing

The blaze took scores of lives and destroyed hundreds of homes, including the house Baclig’s family bought three years ago on Kopili Street, about a 15-minute walk to historic Front Street — once a bustling tourist centre, but now a bleak avenue of flattened buildings lined with charred vehicles.

The remains of 114 people have been found, most of them yet to be identified.

We don’t want him to be lost. If we don’t get his body back, he’ll just be lost.​– Leona Castillo on missing son Po’omaika’i Estores-Losano

Hawaii’s Gov. Josh Green has said the death toll will likely rise in the days to come as the painstaking search for remains continues in the heaps of rubble and ash in Lahaina, a seaside community of 12,000 and a tourist hotspot on Maui.

Officials acknowledge they don’t have a firm number on the missing. Many initially listed as unaccounted for have since been located.

A spokesperson for Maui County, Mahina Martin, said Saturday that authorities involved in the search effort were working to compile a list of the missing, and continued to vet the information being gathered.

The only publicly available list has been put together by Good Samaritans hoping to link family with loved ones.

40% of fire zone not yet searched

More than 1,000 federal personnel are on Maui, nearly half of whom are assigned to help in the search for remains, the White House said.

Crews have now sifted through about 60 per cent of the fire zone, administrator Deanne Criswell of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)said Saturday.

WATCH | Residents return to destroyed Lahaina:

Returning Lahaina residents see full scope of Maui wildfire destruction

Hawaiian officials have reopened the highway leading into Lahaina after the historic town was devastated by wildfires last week. At least 110 people have been confirmed dead as searchers with cadaver dogs continue to comb the disaster area.

“We are making progress and we will continue to be with the people of Hawaii every step of the way,” Criswell said.

The agency has approved nearly $7 million US to aid more than 2,000 households, including $3 million in rental assistance.

Earlier this week, police Chief John Pelletier said authorities would do their best to track down the missing.

“But I can’t promise that we’re going to get them all,” he said.

‘I just want closure’

On the day before the fire, Po’omaika’i Estores-Losano, a 28-year-old father of two, wished aloha to his ohana, the Hawaiian word for family. “Another beautiful day in Hawaii,” he wrote on Facebook, ending his post by urging his circle to “have fun, enjoy,” and to never be “unhappy and grumpy.”

He was among the scores still missing Saturday. His family has scoured the island looking for him, checking hospitals and shelters. Without a car, Estores-Losano would have had to outrun the fire and smoke.

“We don’t want him to think we stopped looking for him,” said Ku’ulei Barut, who last spoke to her brother the day before he went missing.

People pose for a photo at a wedding.
Po’omaika’i Estores-Losano, right, is seen with his sister, Ku’ulei Barut, on her wedding day in September 2019. Estores-Losano’s family is searching for him in the wake of the Maui wildfires. (Leona Castillo/The Associated Press)

His mother, Leona Castillo, wants to hang on to the possibility that her son is still alive, but she knows she may have to face a reality she’s not yet ready to accept. Last week, as the talk of body counts intensified, she got herself swabbed for DNA.

She wants him found, no matter how and where.

“We don’t want him to be lost. If we don’t get his body back, he’ll just be lost.”

WATCH | Hope fades for hundreds still missing: 

Hope fades for hundreds still missing after Maui wildfires

Relief workers in Lahaina continue the slow and meticulous work of searching for wildfire victims as Hawaii’s governor warns up to 20 bodies could be found every day for the next ten days. At least 99 people are already confirmed dead.

In the days after the fire, there was chaos and confusion, with so many families looking for missing loved ones. Castillo said she was relieved for friends and neighbours who were reunited with loved ones.

But she wondered when it would be her turn.

“I just want closure,” she said.

LISTEN | Wildfires lay bare tensions between locals, tourists:

23:14Hawaii wildfires lay bare tensions between locals, tourists

For tourists interested in a beach vacation, Maui residents have a simple message: this is not the time to visit Hawaii. The wildfires that decimated the historic town of Lahaina, leaving at least 111 people dead and hundreds more still missing, have also laid bare the long-simmering tensions between native Hawaiians, and wealthy tourists and developers. Today we’ll be talking about why many Hawaiians have been asking tourists to stay out long before the fires and why many are afraid recovery will open the door to even more outside ownership. Savannah Harriman-Pote is an energy and climate change reporter and the lead producer of This Is Our Hawaiʻi, a new podcast from Hawai‘i Public Radio. For transcripts of this series, please visit:

Ace Yabes is also waiting for word about his relatives — nine in all who are missing, including Angelica Baclig, whose family lived next door to an aunt and her family, five of whom have yet to be found.

Kevin Baclig was at work as a nurse at a skilled nursing facility when the fire raced down from the hills and into town, igniting nearly everything in its path.

“I’ve been searching all the shelters, hotels, possible places they might go — I’ve gone to all of them. I’ve gone to the houses of their friends,” he said. “I’ve reported them missing to the MPD [Maui Police Department], to the FBI. I’ve been showing their pictures.”

Two people pose for a selfie.
Kevin and Angelica Baclig take a selfie last November during a visit to Los Angeles. Angelica and her parents, as well as five of her other relatives who lived next door, remain missing. (Kevin Baclig/The Associated Press)

Kevin, who is staying with friends in Kahalui on the northern flank of the island, holds out hope as he searches.

Maybe in their haste to flee, none had the time to grab their cellphones — which might explain why he has yet to get a call. Maybe they are looking for him, too, and unsure about his whereabouts.

Amid anguish and uncertainty, and as he nears the end of his efforts, he continues to pray for help.

“Lord, guide me in everything,” he wrote Thursday on Facebook. “I don’t know what to do.”

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