Sarah Haynes of Maui, Hawaii, said she just wants to do what she does best: Save animals.
For reasons that were not quite clear, she and others — including specially trained animal rescuers — were prevented from accessing the burn zone to save pets in the wake of the devastating wildfires in Maui in early August.
Now, as of late Saturday, Aug. 26, animal rescue teams have been allowed in. Maui County officials said over the weekend they are permitting the Maui Humane Society to access the Lahaina burn zone in “a coordinated search-and-rescue effort” to find live animals that survived the fire and are in desperate need of care.
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“Animal Search And Rescue (ASAR)/Animal Incident Management (AIM) and Greater Good Charities trapping team will join MHS [Maui Humane Society] Humane Enforcement Officers who will be escorted into the impacted areas,” the Maui Humane Society said in a press release posted on its Facebook page this weekend. “Teams will focus on trapping animals that have been reported by the public and first responders immediately, focusing on remaining cat colonies and stray pets. Maui Humane Society is committed to lifesaving and reunification efforts for all animals.”
Haynes, who moved from Northern California to Maui six years ago, is founder of the Kitty Charm Farm, a 501 (c)3 animal rescue. Haynes said she is familiar with how things usually go once the smoke literally and figuratively clears from the fire damage.
Typically, “the rescuers came in after two or three days and start trapping and get animals out,” she told Fox News Digital in a phone interview on Saturday, August 26. “And so I geared up immediately.”
“I have a lot of traps. I’ve got a crew, I’ve got vans, I’ve got everything you need all ready to go,” she said.
Initially, Haynes and others on the island had limited access to the “burn zone” where the fires were hit.
Haynes said she is “devastated for the animals” that have been suffering.
Still, during those first few days, she told Fox News Digital that she rescued a week-old kitten “covered in ashes” who desperately needed to be bottle-fed with kitten milk. She also found another cat, whose whiskers were singed, sitting on the steps of Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, the only building to survive the blaze.
Over the course of an afternoon, access to the burn zone was closed off, Haynes told Fox News Digital. And as the days ticked by, she found she and others were still not allowed to enter.
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“A lot of animals are in there,” she said. “We get calls from police and fire and various first responders.”
“Construction people are posting videos of animals, mostly cats, because cats are very good at escaping situations,” Haynes said. “They go underground into the storm drains.”
Even people whose homes did not burn in the fire were told they could not retrieve their animals, or even check to see if they’re alive, said Haynes.
“We’re getting calls from people whose buildings are still standing and are intact,” she said. “And they were at work and the fire came.”
The chances these pets were alive are “far lower” now than they were earlier in the month, but Haynes said there is still a strong possibility. “They have nine lives, you know,” she joked.
Haynes said she was also upset at the seeming lack of enforcement of the PETS Act, which was passed after Hurricane Katrina.
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“The PETS Act authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency,” according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association website.
That was not happening, said Haynes, who said she was puzzled by it.
“The Maui Humane Society has done everything they can to get in” to the burn zone, she said.
FEMA, as well as the office of Hawaiian Gov. Josh Green, told Fox News Digital that Maui County officials controlled access to the burn zone, including for animal rescuers. Fox News Digital reached out to Maui County but did not hear back by time of publication.
The Maui Humane Society “immediately deployed hazmat-trained animal rescue crews from national crews that go out to these incidents,” said Haynes.
However, for nearly three weeks, they were not allowed to enter the area to try to save any animals, said Haynes.
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“It’s devastating,” she said on Saturday.
One of the reasons officials gave for blocking access to the burn zone was that they were afraid animal rescuers would disrupt human remains.
Haynes did not see the logic in that, she told Fox News Digital.
Hungry and scared cats “are more likely to destroy remains than if they were in a trap,” said Haynes, who noted that hazmat-trained rescue organizations know how to rescue animals without disturbing human remains.
Haynes and a group of others organized perimeter food drops for any cats who survived the fires.
“So putting food or water out on street corners sustains them, and we’re doing that now, to some degree,” she said — noting it’s only a fix “on the edges.”
The messaging about a concern for human remains and about toxic chemicals didn’t make sense to Haynes, she said, when compared to what is actually happening on the ground.
“There’s heavy equipment barreling through the streets every day since day one,” she said.
She emphasized she is “devastated for the animals” that have been suffering.
Haynes said she is not giving up on her mission to save as many pets as she can.
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“I know that we can still get some [pets] alive, so we’re still going,” she told Fox News Digital. But this has been “pretty insane,” she also said.
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In an email early Sunday morning, Mike Merrill, founder and executive director of Florida Urgent Rescue, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit animal rescue, said the latest news about pet rescue groups being allowed into the burn zone to save animals in need is a “big step in the right direction.”
He also said, “We don’t know the scope of the search, or whether they have limitations, but at least they’re allowing animal rescue teams in now.”