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Hawaii officials seek families' help identifying remains of wildfire victims

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit Maui

By Jonathan Allen and Brad Brooks

LAHAINA, Hawaii (Reuters) - Officials in Hawaii on Tuesday implored residents to submit DNA samples to help in the identification of human remains found in the ashes of a fast-moving wildfire on the island of Maui that killed at least 115 people earlier this month.

At the same time, investigators acknowledged that it's possible not all of the remains of victims from the August 8th fire on Maui will ever be found.

Maui County prosecuting attorney Andrew Martin, tasked with heading up the family assistance center, said that he's spoken with experts who have handled DNA sampling in mass-casualty disasters elsewhere, and that he's seeing less willingness in Hawaii.

"The number of family members who are coming in to provide DNA samples is a lot lower than they've seen in other disasters," he said.

Martin said he could not explain why people seemed less willing to provide DNA samples - so far 104 had been collected. But he hoped his reassurances that the DNA provided would only be used for the purpose of identifying remains, and would not be transferred to any law enforcement database or agency, would help more family members come forward.

Investigators said at the news conference that there remain between 1,000 and 1,100 names on their running list of people who are unaccounted for from the fire.

But they also said the list was a complex jumble that included some people identified by a single name, others with missing data like birth dates, some people whose genders were not clear and also that there were likely duplicate reports of the same people as the list is compiled from varied sources.

They gave no forecast on when - or if - they might ever finish the task of accounting for everybody on the list. They also said they could not yet give an estimate on what the total number of people killed by the fire would eventually be.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier underscored that so far his department had 85 missing persons reports related to the fire on file - and asked citizens to report any missing family members or others directly to the police if possible.

The devastation was so bad, though, that Pelletier warned that even after all the searching for remains is over, "I can't guarantee ... that we got everybody."

The wildfires whipped by winds tore through the beachside town of Lahaina in west Maui, killing at least 115 people, according to Maui County officials. Authorities say they have now searched 100% of the single-story residential properties in the disaster area.

(This story has been refiled to fix punctuation in the headline)

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Lahaina, Hawaii, and Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Editing by Michael Perry)