Wildfires fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane killed 36 people and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings on the Hawaiian island of Maui, in the deadliest blaze in the U.S. in years.
Rescuers searched Thursday through the leveled, ashen homes and businesses of Lahaina, which dates to the 1700s, is the biggest town on the west side of the island and has long been a favorite destination of tourists. Firefighters still battled blazes on the island, as local officials prepared to evacuate thousands of visitors and find shelter for residents in need.
The fire started Tuesday and took the island by surprise, racing through dry growth and leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. The flames left some people with mere minutes to act and led some to flee into the ocean.
At least 36 people have died, Maui County said in a news release late Wednesday, adding that no other details were available. Officials said earlier that 271 structures had been damaged or destroyed and dozens of people had been injured. It is the deadliest fire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and virtually razed the town of Paradise.
Officials warned that the Maui death toll could rise.
“These were large and fast-moving fires, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to get our arms around them and contain them. So, we’re hoping for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst.” Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son got back to their apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water, and only had time to grab a change of clothes and run as the bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out,” Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As the family fled, a senior center across the road erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn’t know if the people got out. As they drove away, downed utility poles and others fleeing in cars slowed their progress. “It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Kawaakoa, 34, said.
As the fires rage, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 visitors flew out of Maui on Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”
The fires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It’s the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
Wildfires aren’t unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze and, once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer.
The Big Island is also currently seeing blazes, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.
As winds eased somewhat on Maui on Wednesday, pilots were able to view the full scope of the devastation. Aerial video from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine. Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbor were scorched, and gray smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that,” said Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company. “We had tears in our eyes.”
About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.
Tiare Lawrence was frantically trying to reach her siblings who live near where a gas station exploded in Lahaina.
“There’s no service, so we can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said from the Maui community of Pukalani.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, to distribute water, and possibly adding law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 150,000 gallons of water on the Maui fires.
The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape flames and smoke, including two children.
Among those injured were three people with critical burns who were flown to Oahu, officials said.
Bissen, the Maui County mayor, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.
Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire started up on a hillside.
“It just ripped through everything with amazing speed,” he said, adding it was “like a blowtorch.”
The winds were so strong they blew his garage door off its hinges and trapped his car in the garage, Farinelli said. So a friend drove him, along with his wife, Judit, and dog, Susi, to an evacuation shelter. He had no idea what had happened to their home.
“We’re hoping for the best,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s gone.”
President Joe Biden ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search-and-rescue efforts.
“Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses and communities destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.
Gov. Josh Green cut short a trip and planned to return Wednesday evening. In his absence, acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation and urged tourists to stay away.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, bemoaned the loss of so much in the town and to him personally.
“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said. “Every significant thing I owned burned down today.”