Early portraits of Maui wildfire victims, many older, begin to emerge

Aug 18 (Reuters) – Donna Gomes, 71, lived her entire life in Lahaina, where friends knew her as “the bull” for her strong-willed nature. Joseph Schilling, 66, enjoyed hunting for bullet shells and was known by his loved ones for making delicious sugar toast.

Both died last week in the wildfires that scorched Maui and were among the first victims identified by authorities and family members in the heart-wrenching days afterward.

As names of the dead are shared, an early pattern has emerged: Many who perished were over the age of 65.

While scores more victims will be identified in the weeks and months to come, and will almost surely represent a broad cross-section of the population, the deaths serve as a reminder that seniors are often most at risk in fast-moving blazes.

Schilling, whose family called him “Funcle Joe,” died while helping to evacuate five other elderly people in his housing complex, family friend Akiva Bluh wrote on GoFundMe.

“Joe passed as a HERO,” Bluh wrote. “To everybody who had the pleasure of meeting my Uncle Joe, count your lucky stars; rarely do you get to meet such a genuine soul.”

Gomes was among the six people local officials have identified of the 111 people confirmed dead. Hundreds more remain missing.

Gomes was described as having a “very strong and independent will” and the “biggest heart full of tough love” by her eldest granddaughter in a Facebook post.

“Some of her oldest friends know her as “the bull” NO ONE COULD TELL HER what to do and in the end not even the fires. She will be deeply missed by so many,” her granddaughter Tehani Kuhaulua wrote.

The other victims identified so far by officials are Melva Benjamin, 71; Robert Dyckman, 74; Buddy Jantoc, 79; Alfredo Galinato, 79; and Virginia Dofa, 90.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, people over the age of 65 face the greatest relative risk of dying in a fire: 2.6 times higher than that of the general population. Research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Fire Administration tie this trend among seniors to greater frailty and difficulty escaping.

The fast-moving Maui brush fire, fueled by wind gusts up to 80 miles (130 km) per hour, raced down the slope of an extinct volcano and into the town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, destroying or damaging 2,200 buildings and causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.

As the firestorm erupted around them, many people raced through the smoke and flames, hoping to find safety. Some jumped into the ocean and were saved by rescue workers while others perished helping people flee.

Galinato lost his life as he helped his family, tenants and neighbors evacuate, his son told KITV, a local ABC affiliate.

Galinato, who picked pineapples and worked at hotels, was known for his sense of humor and for providing for his family, Joshua Galinato told the station.

“He just makes us smile every day with his jokes,” he said. “He’s just the spirit of aloha.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Don Durfee, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Daniel Trotta is a U.S. National Affairs correspondent, covering water/fire/drought, race, guns, LGBTQ+ issues and breaking news in America. Previously based in New York, and now in California, Trotta has covered major U.S. news stories such as the killing of Trayvon Martin, the mass shooting of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and natural disasters including Superstorm Sandy. In 2017 he was awarded the NLGJA award for excellence in transgender coverage. He was previously posted in Cuba, Spain, Mexico and Nicaragua, covering top world stories such as the normalization of Cuban-U.S. relations and the Madrid train bombing by Islamist radicals.

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