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

Hawaii National Guardsmen  prepare to board a KC-130J Hercules
Hawaii National Guardsmen with Joint Task Force 50 prepare to board a KC-130J Hercules assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 153, Marine Aircraft Group 24, 1st Marine Air Wing, Marine Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Aug. 14, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brandon Aultman)

The military has stood up a task force and greatly expanded its involvement to more than 400 service members as it continues to respond to the deadly and record-breaking wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The Pentagon is now "executing six approved mission assignments from FEMA" that include moving people, cargo and supplies to the island; housing first responders; and helping with aerial firefighting, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

Additionally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "has designated Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Stephen Logan as the dual-status commander of the Joint Task Force 50 [that] will synchronize all DoD support to operations," Singh added.

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    The expanded military role comes as the situation on the island only continues to grow more dire. President Joe Biden said in a social media post Tuesday that the wildfire death toll had grown to 99 people since last Tuesday -- "the deadliest wildfire in a century," he wrote.

    The town of Lahaina was reduced to an ashen, barren landscape after wildfires swept down from the nearby mountains to the seaside location on Aug. 8. As the wildfires reached the town, reports emerged of people jumping into the ocean in order to avoid the flames in what was once a popular tourist destination.

    Singh said that the Hawaii National Guard has activated around 258 Army National Guard and Air National Guard personnel for state active duty -- up from 134 last week.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also deployed about 30 people -- a mix of active-duty soldiers and civilians -- who are managing debris removal and providing temporary power for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

    Meanwhile, Singh said the Coast Guard, which has deployed about 140 service members, has shifted the focus of its response to "minimizing maritime environmental impacts while remaining ready to respond to any new reports of individuals in the water."

    On Monday, the service announced that it had deployed pollution response teams and equipment to various places around the island, including a 100-foot boom placed at the mouth of Lahaina Harbor "to contain potential hazardous contaminants and materials."

    Last week, a Coast Guard 45-foot response boat medium crew rescued 14 survivors from the waters off the island.

    Singh noted that active-duty service members from several branches have been involved in the response efforts from the beginning of the disaster, but the Pentagon has been hampered from saying exactly how many because the figures are constantly changing.

    "They're going to ebb and flow as FEMA continues to request service and support," Singh said.

    The Marine Corps said it had already started to play a role in supporting the task force when a Marine KC-130J aircraft, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, transported leadership from Oahu to Maui this morning.

    Chuck Little, a spokesman for Marine Forces Pacific, told in an emailed statement that the Marines are postured to support emergency relief efforts with many of the platforms and units they have in Hawaii.

    Little said the Marine Corps has MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft ready to help with more material and people, and it can use MQ-9 Reaper drones for aerial survey.

    "Additionally, the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment is available to provide manpower, engineering and water purification support," Little added.

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

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