Wildfires sent Hawaiians fleeing into the ocean. It could be the state’s worst natural disaster in decades

Maui wildfires have claimed at least 67 lives, with the death toll certain to rise, Bevan Hurley reports

Tuesday 15 August 2023 08:47 BST
People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Maui on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2023
People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Maui on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2023 (Alan Dickar via AP)

Wildfires raging out of control in Hawaii have claimed at least 93 lives, displaced thousands of families, knocked out 911 and cell services, forced residents to escape into the ocean, and almost wiped out an entire town, officials say.

Several large fires on Maui and the Big Island, partly fuelled by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, have destroyed dozens of homes and businesses and completely cut off affected areas.

Maui County officials confirmed the dramatic rise in the death toll to 93. The death toll is expected to rise when specialist search and rescue teams begin the grim task of going door-to-door in burned out areas. A thousand people remain missing.

Aerial images of the historic western Maui town of Lahaina showed it had been almost completely destroyed.

Lieutenant governor Sylvia Luke said the devastation was a “tragic moment for the entire state” and recovery would take years.

Governor Josh Green, who returned to Hawaii on Wednesday night, said in a video statement the state had suffered a “terrible disaster”.

Search and rescue efforts continue across Maui, Big Island and Oahu as several wildfires are still actively burning.

What we know about the Maui fires

On Maui, the worst affected area is the historic western town of Lahaina, where a dozen residents were rescued by the US Coast Guard at around 10.50pm Tuesday local time after jumping into the ocean to escape the flames and smoke.

They were transported to “safe areas” by a US Coast Goard (USCG) 45-foot rapid response vessel.

Most of Lahaina’s waterfront Front St business district was feared destroyed, according to Hawaii News Now.

Dramatic videos posted to social media showed “apocalyptic” fires sweeping through the town, a tourist and commercial hub that was Hawaii’s first capital and is the ancestral home of the Hawaii’s indigenous Kānaka Maoli.

This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 (Zeke Kalua/County of Maui via AP)

The wind gusts had downed power lines and cut out electricity to the area.

Traffic in and out of the town was very heavy as residents tried to evacuate on Tuesday, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin told the Associated Press.

Maui County closed all roads around Lahaina on Wednesday, and people who weren’t in an evacuation area were urged to shelter in place.

Lahaina Tiare Lawrence told Hawai News Now that people had been forced to run for their lives.

“It’s just so hard. I’m currently Upcountry and just knowing I can’t get a hold of any of my family members. I still don’t know where my little brother is. I don’t know where my stepdad is,” she told the news site.

Hawaii wildfires: Maui and Big Island evacuated as Hurricane Dora winds fuel blazes

“Everyone I know in Lahaina, their homes have burned down.”

Lahaina resident Alan Dickar posted footage showing fires sweeping through the business district on Tuesday night.

“Today was a devastating day in Lahaina,” he wrote on Facebook. “A lot of homes nearby burned as well. Tomorrow, the sun will rise, and, through the smoke, we will all find our way.”

A separate fire is threatening the southern coastal town of Kihei.

Clint Hansen, of Maui Luxury Real Estate, shared drone footage of the Kihei blaze to show the extent of the destruction.

He encouraged others to share pictures to show just how extreme the wildfires had become.

“Old footage, pictures, anything that explains the severity because people are not understanding how bad this is,” Mr Hansen wrote on Facebook.

“Kihei appears to be doing OK for now but Lahaina is apocalyptic.”

A third fire raging in the inland mountainous region of Kula is yet to be contained.

Dozens of residents were evacuated overnight from the area after brush fires were reported in the Olinda Rd, Auli’i Drive and Hanamu Rd areas.

People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Maui on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2023 (Alan Dickar via AP)

The American Red Cross has set up emergency shelters at Kihei, Lahaina and Pukalani.

More than 4,000 people were being housed across four emergency shelters on Wednesday evening, state officials said.

Some shelters have been “overrun”, acting governor Sylvia Luke told reporters.

The County of Maui said at least 100 firefighters were tackling the separate blazes.

More then 20 people have been injured, including a firefighter who was hosptalised for smoke inhalation while battling fires in West Maui fire.

Wildfires are raging in three areas on the Hawaiian island of Maui (Google Maps)

At Maui’s Kahului Airport, 1,800 passengers were trapped overnight after dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed, according to the Hawaiian Department of Transportation.

Thousands of Maui residents remain without power on Wednesday, and 911 services are out indefinitely in the west of the island.

Hawaii’s National Guard has been activated and is assisting local emergency services, Hawaii’s adjutant general Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara posted on Facebook.

Erratic wind, challenging terrain, steep slopes and dropping humidity, are making it difficult to predict path and speed of a wildfire, Maui Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said in a statement.

On Big Island, a wildfire has destroyed 1800 acres and is threatening 200 homes around the rural community of Kohala Ranch.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance, according to a release from the Hawaiian Governor’s office.

What are officials saying?

Mr Bissen Jr, the Maui County mayor, said that six fatalities had been confirmed moments before a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m sad to report that just before coming on this, it was confirmed we’ve had six fatalities. We are still in search and rescue mode,” he said.

The initial death toll rose dramatically late on Wednesday night to 36. Many still remain unaccounted for.

Earlier, Hawaii Governor Josh Green, who is cutting a vacation short to return to the fire-stricken state, said in a statement: “Heroic efforts by first responders have prevented many casualties from occurring, but some loss of life is expected.

“We have suffered a terrible disaster in the form of a wildfire that has spread widely as a result of hurricane-force winds in the region and underlying drought conditions. Maui and the Big Island both experienced significant fires. Much of Lāhainā on Maui has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced.”

He is expecting to make a formal request for federal assistance in the next few days.

Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke, who is acting governor in Josh Green’s absence, told CNN that the state was facing an “unprecedented” natural disaster and called on the White House to declare a federal emergency to provide immediate support.

Maui hospitals have been overwhelmed with people suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, Ms Luke told CNN.

“We are already in communication with other hospital systems about relieving the burden — the reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support because Maui hospital cannot do extensive burn treatment,” she told the network.

“In addition to dealing with disaster, we’re dealing with major transportation issues as well.”

Satellite phones were the only way to contact the stricken town, she said.

“It’s impeding communication. It’s impeding efforts to evacuate residents and we are very concerned about that,” Ms Luke told CNN.

On Wednesday, the White House said it was directing all available assets from the US Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines to assist in the rescue effort.

“We’re working as quickly as possible to fight those fires and evacuate residents and tourists. In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers: every asset that we have will be available to them,” President Biden said in remarks at a Veterans Affairs medical center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hawaiian indigenous leader Kaniela Ing told The Independent in a statement that his “heart is breaking at the utter devastation” that the wildfires were causing friends and family.

“The extreme wildfires in Lahania, in this summer of climate disasters, are yet more proof that we are in a climate emergency and this crisis is killing us,” Mr Ing, the National Director of the Green New Deal Network, added.

Former president Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, wrote: “It’s tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai’i — a place that’s so special to so many of us. Michelle and I are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down.”

He encouraged people to donate to the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund.

What is causing the fires?

The wildfires were whipped up by Hurricane Dora, a category 4 storm passing about 500 miles (804 kms) south of the Pacific Ocean archipelago, and a strong high pressure system to the north, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

"These strong winds coupled with low humidity levels are producing dangerous fire weather conditions that will last through Wednesday afternoon," the NWS said.

Between Monday and Wednesday, wind gusts as high as 67mph were recorded in Maui, according to the NWS.

West and southern areas of Maui were already in severe drought conditions, according to the US Drought Monitor.

The climate crisis has created warmer, dryer conditions that are increasing the risk and extent of wildfires across the western United States, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Conditions.

Wildfires have wrought havoc for years across the North American continent, especially in the US Southwest and Canada. But blazes of this magnitude have rarely, if ever, been seen in Hawaii.

Josh Marcus contributed reporting to this story.

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