WAILUKU, Hawaii — The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities as firefighters battled the stubborn blaze that has already claimed 36 lives, making it the deadliest in the U.S. in five years.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took the island by surprise, racing through parched growth and neighborhoods in the historic town of Lahaina, a tourist destination that dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.
Maui County said late Wednesday that at least 36 people had died, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise. The Hawaii toll could rise, though, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been unreachable due to ongoing fires or obstructions. Officials said earlier Wednesday that 271 structures had been damaged or destroyed and that dozens of people had been injured, including some critically.
“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday.
He said search and rescue teams still won’t be able to access certain areas until the fire lines are secure and they’re sure they’ll be able to get to those areas safely.
“What we have here is a natural disaster,” Weintraub said. “There may have been questions that need to be examined about whether it was handled in the right way. But we still got people in danger. We still have people who don’t have homes. We still have people who can’t find their loved ones.”
The flames left some people with mere minutes to act and led some to flee into the ocean. A Lahaina man, Bosco Bae, posted video on Facebook from Tuesday night that showed fire burning nearly every building on a street as sirens blared and wind-blown sparks raced by. Bae, who said he was one of the last people to leave the town, was evacuated to the island’s main airport and was waiting to be allowed to return home.
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described their 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, 34, said at an evacuation shelter, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As the family fled, they called 911 when they saw the Hale Mahaolu senior living facility across the road erupt in flames.
Communications have been spotty on the island, with 911, landline and cellular service failing at times.
Chelsey Vierra’s grandmother, Louise Abihai, was living at Hale Mahaolu, and the family doesn’t know if she got out. “She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,” Vierra said Thursday. “She can walk. She is strong.”
Relatives are monitoring shelter lists and calling the hospital. “We got to find our loved one, but there’s no communication here,” said Vierra, who fled the flames. “We don’t know who to ask about where she went.”
As the fires raged, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 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.
In coastal Kihei, southeast of Lahaina, wide swaths of ground glowed red with embers Wednesday night as flames continued to chew through trees and buildings. Gusty winds blew sparks over a black and orange patchwork of charred earth and still-crackling hot spots.
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.” Smith said.
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.”
Power was out in parts of Maui. Cellular service was down, too, making it difficult for many to check in with friends and family members. Some were posting messages on social media.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, of the Hawaii State Department of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, distribute water, and possibly add 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 had jumped into the water to escape the flames and smoke.
Bissen, the Maui County mayor, said Wednesday that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires.
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.”
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.
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. While traveling in Utah on Thursday, Biden pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”
Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on the island. “Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii. But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.
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