At least 36 people have died in the Lahaina fire in Hawaii, Maui County wrote in a statement posted to the county website Wednesday evening.
Wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once-busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.
Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.
On Wednesday, crews were continuing to battle blazes in several places on the island. Authorities urged visitors to stay away.
‘We barely made it out in time’
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape from under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their six-year-old son grabbed a change of clothes and ran as the bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out in time,” Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As Kawaakoa and Yasso fled, a senior centre erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn’t know if the people got out. Fire alarms blared. As they drove away, downed utility poles and fleeing cars slowed their progress.
WATCH | Wildfires scorch Maui:
Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived. Lahaina Town is a historically significant former capital that dates back to the 1700s and has long been a favourite destination for tourists.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Kawaakoa said. “I was helpless.”
The fires were the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
‘We had tears in our eyes’
As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed Wednesday, allowing pilots 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 harbour were scorched and grey 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.”
State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement Wednesday that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of an elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.
“Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus — on Front Street in Lahaina — sustained extensive fire and structural damage,” he said. “The Department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week,” he said.
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 Straub Medical Center’s burn unit on the island of Oahu, officials said. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, officials said, and a firefighter was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.
Thousands in evacuation centres
Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference 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.
More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centres. Another 2,000 travellers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were cancelled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.
Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire had 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.”
‘I don’t know what’s left’
U.S. President Joe Biden said he’d ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search and rescue efforts on Maui.
“Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses and communities destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.
WATCH | High winds propelled fires across the Hawaiian island of Maui:
Former president Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.
“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said.
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