Maui wildfires kill 53 as Hawaii foresees years-long recovery


 A search of the wildfire devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of obliterated neighborhoods and landmarks charred beyond recognition, as the death toll rose to at least 53 and survivors told harrowing tales of narrow escapes with only the clothes on their backs.

A flyover of historic Lahaina showed entire neighborhoods that had been a vibrant vision of color and island life reduced to gray ash. Block after block was nothing but rubble and blackened foundations, including along the famous Front Street, where tourists shopped and dined just days ago. Boats in the harbor were scorched, and smoke hovered over the town, which dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.

“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told The Associated Press. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed by fires that were still burning, he said.

Already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island, the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue, Green added.

“We are heartsick,” Green said.

Tiffany Kidder Winn’s gift store Whaler’s Locker, which is one of the town’s oldest shops, was among the many businesses destroyed. As she assessed the damage Thursday, she came upon a line of burned-out vehicles, some with charred bodies inside.

“It looked like they were trying to get out, but were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get off Front Street,” she said. She later spotted a body leaning against a seawall.

Winn said the destruction was so widespread, “I couldn’t even tell where I was because all the landmarks were gone.”

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched growth covering the island and then feasting on homes and anything else that lay in its path.

The official death toll of 53 as of Thursday makes this 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 inaccessible due to the three ongoing fires, including the one in Lahaina that was 80% contained on Thursday, according to a Maui County news release. Dozens of people have been injured, some critically.

“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Search and rescue teams still won’t be able to reach certain areas until the fire lines are secure and access is safe, Weintraub added.

The flames left some people with mere minutes to act and led some to flee into the ocean. A Lahaina man, Bosco Bae, posted a video on Facebook from Tuesday night that showed the fire burning nearly every building on a street as sirens blared and windblown 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.

Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old cook from Guatemala who came to the U.S. in January 2022, said that when he heard the fire alarms, it was already too late to flee in his car.

“I opened the door, and the fire was almost on top of us,” he said from an evacuation center at a gymnasium. “We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day because the fire didn’t stop.”

Vasquez and his brother Eduardo escaped via roads that were clogged with vehicles full of people. The smoke was so toxic that he vomited. He said he’s not sure his roommates and neighbors made it to safety.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described their harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies. 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.

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.”

Communications have been spotty on the island, with 911, landline, and cellular service failing at times. Power was also out in parts of Maui.

Tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 flew out of Maui on Wednesday with at least 1,500 more expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to receive thousands.

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.

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.

Members of a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildland firefighting crew on Maui battle a fire in Kula, Hawaii. Several Hawaii communities were forced to evacuate from wildfires that destroyed at least two homes as of Tuesday as a dry season mixed with strong wind gusts made for dangerous fire conditions. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP)

Members of a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildland firefighting crew on Maui battle a fire in Kula, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP)

Hawaii’s Big Island is also currently seeing blazes, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there were no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.

With communications hampered, it was difficult for many to check in with friends and family members. Some people were posting messages on social media. A Family Assistance Center opened at the Kahului Community Center for people looking for the missing.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, of the Hawaii State Department of Defense, said 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 (568,000 liters) of water on the fires.

The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape the flames and smoke.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said Wednesday that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. Traveling in Utah on Thursday, he 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.

Wildfires in Hawaii have closed roads and schools, prompted thousands of evacuations, and caused severe destruction in the historic town of Lahaina on Maui after dry conditions and high winds helped whip up fires that swept through Maui and the Big Island on Tuesday night. Maui County officials confirmed 17 additional fatalities on Thursday related to the fires, in addition to the 36 confirmed Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 53.

The winds, which on Tuesday hit 82 mph on the Big Island and 62 mph on Maui, were caused in part by Hurricane Dora passing some 500 miles to the south.

In an interview with Morning Edition on Thursday, Hawaii's Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke called the fires "devastating" and described an aerial flight she took with the Coast Guard over Lahaina. "Homes were destroyed, businesses were destroyed, " she said. "It just looked like the whole town went and dissolved into ashes."

August 10: Wildfire wreckage is left behind in Lahaina.

Rick Bowmer/AP

August 10: Wildfire wreckage is shown in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.

Rick Bowmer/AP

August 10: Destroyed cars show a part of the damage in Lahaina.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 10: At least 36 people have died after a fast-moving wildfire turned Lahaina to ashes.

Rick Bowmer/AP

August 10: An aerial image shows destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 10: A burned hillside above Lahaina shows the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

The commercial satellite company ICEYE has estimated that at least 400 structures were damaged or destroyed in Lahaina. That assessment is based on radar images taken from space.

On Thursday, Maui County officials said in a statement that first responders in Lahaina are continuing to try to suppress the fire and prevent it from spreading. They said no unauthorized entry was being allowed into Lahaina due to safety concerns. Members of the Maui Police Department, Hawaii National Guard, and Maui Search and Rescue continue to work in the area.

On Thursday, President Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, making Federal funding available to individuals affected by the wildfires in the state. The money will include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

August 10: Homes and buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 10: A person walks past a destroyed car in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 10: An aerial view shows destroyed homes and buildings that burned to the ground around the harbor and Front Street in historic Lahaina Town.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Officials have discouraged all non-essential travel to Maui. About 11,000 tourists departed the island in the wake of the damage on Wednesday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Another 1,500 are expected are leave Thursday, he said.

August 10: An aerial view shows the historic Banyan Tree along with destroyed homes, boats, and buildings burned to the ground in the historic Lahaina town in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 10: The historic Banyan tree is surrounded by burned cars.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile in Honolulu on the island of O'ahu, officials have prepared the Hawaii Convention Center to accommodate 2,000 people according to James Kunane Tokioka, state director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. At a press conference Wednesday night, he said it would be open to both tourists and local residents who have been displaced.

August 10: A charred boat lies on the scorched waterfront after wildfires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated Maui's city of Lahaina, Hawaii.

Mason Jarvi/Reuters

August 9: Smoke billows from flames near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii.

Dustin Johnson/Reuters

August 9: After hearing reports her home was destroyed along with her pets, Steff Baku-Kirkman reacts after wildfires driven by high winds were believed to have destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina.

Marco Garcia /Reuters

August 9 - Passengers wait for delayed and canceled flights off the island as thousands of passengers were stranded at the Kahului Airport in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui.

\Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

August 9: People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights Wednesday, in Kahului, Hawaii.

Rick Bowmer/AP

August 8: This photo provided by the County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii.

Zeke Kalua/AP

Frustrations are starting to mount in Hawaii as the state tries to find any survivors of the worst disaster in its history.

On Thursday, Governor Josh Green announced the death toll from a series of brush fires that impacted the state would surpass 53, but officials declined to speculate on how much they expected the number would grow.

"The full extent will be in the billions of dollars, without a doubt. We're first focused on lives lost," said Green.

"Tragedy that hits one of us, is felt by all of us," County of Maui Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said. "These past few days, the resolve of our families, businesses, and visitors have been tested like never before in our lifetime."

During the disaster, access to the 911 system was spotty and cell service and phone lines were down in many areas.

Flyovers of Lahaina by the U.S. Civil Air Patrol and Maui Fire Department showed that more than 271 structures have been impacted since the fire broke out Tuesday evening. Widespread damage to the west Maui town, the harbor, and surrounding areas is being documented.

At least 36 people are dead and search efforts are still underway on the Hawaiian islands as the influence of Hurricane Dora to the south of the islands and a strong ridge of high pressure to the north fuel dangerous wildfires.
(FOX Weather)


The glow of flames was still visible Thursday, as close to 100 Maui firefighters have been on duty around the clock, including 11 from state airport firefighting and rescue personnel. The Maui Fire Department has requested 20 additional firefighters from Honolulu and an incident management team. 

With a reduction of winds, containment of the fires has increased by firefighters warm there are several hotspots that remain.

It’s unclear what sparked these fires, but leaders said that conditions have been arid and that winds from passing Hurricane Dora hundreds of miles to the south and a strong ridge of high pressure to the north enhanced the multiple wildfires and caused them to spread quickly.

"A very typical August trade wind pattern is expected to develop heading into the weekend, where winds could gust anywhere from 10-20 mph daily," Overton said. "The NWS has dropped the wind and fire alerts for the islands."

Gusts of up to 85 mph have grounded firefighting aircraft and have aided in the decimation of some communities on Maui. Block after block in historic Lahaina was burned to the ground. In some cases, people had to jump into the ocean to escape the flames.

"I was the last one off the dock, and when the firestorm came through the banyan tree and took everything with it, and I just ran out to the beach," said Dustin Johnson, a crew member from Lahaina Harbor. "I just helped everybody I could along the way."

Maui Memorial Medical Center said they have been treating burns, smoke inhalation, and other fire-related injuries. Among the five admitted for their injuries, two suffered from critical injuries. Hospital officials said they are prepared to activate a surge plan should the demand for medical services spike.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who is acting as governor, joined the U.S. Coast Guard for an aerial damage assessment of the areas affected by the wildfires. 

"Seeing the devastation of Kihei and Lahaina firsthand was incredibly sobering and heartbreaking," she said. "My heart hurts for the lives lost and the loved ones they leave behind."

Luke said the state is working tirelessly to ensure the health and safety of every person affected. 

"While our beloved Lahaina is forever changed, the love and aloha of the community is steadfast," she added.

President Joe Biden has ordered all available federal assets on the islands to help with the response. Among the help Thursday was the U.S. Army, which sent two Blackhawk helicopters and one Chinook helicopter to assist with firefighting operations. The U.S. Coast Guard also sent 37 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to aid with search and rescue.

Four shelters have been established on Maui after more than 11,000 people have been evacuated off the island. An estimated 1,500 more people are expected to leave the island Thursday.

"Woke up this morning and got on our phones to take pictures of our house, just down to the slab," said Jamie Brown, who had to evacuate from Lahaina. "Nothing but smoke, cinders. Came with the clothes we got on and a dog and two kids."

Tourists are being told to stay away from the island as the Department of Transportation works with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists. Some airlines are also helping to ferry people to the main island.

"Even though we are hurting, we are still able to move forward, especially when we do it together," Bissen said. "In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a kaiāulu, or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha."

A perfect storm of weather conditions led to the massive inferno that killed dozens of people in Maui and caused widespread destruction on an island best known as paradise.

The fires, which sparked Tuesday night, were fueled by an unfortunate combination of a landscape parched by drought conditions and strong winds.

High pressure created strong trade winds, across the eastern Pacific Ocean. Hurricane Dora, passed 750 miles south of Hawaii strengthening the pressure gradient across the Pacific Ocean and enhancing wind gusts. Some of the wind gusts across Hawaii were 67 to 82 mph.

PHOTO: A satellite image of Hurricane Dora passing just south of Hawaii's Big Island, Aug. 7. 2023. Dora was moving west at 23 mph. with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph
A satellite image of Hurricane Dora passing just south of Hawaii's Big Island, Aug. 7. 2023. Dora was moving west at 23 mph. with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph

In addition, parts of Maui, including much of the island's west coast, are currently under severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The fires seemed to ignite out of nowhere, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told reporters in a news conference on Wednesday.

"We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane, which did not make an impact on our islands, would cause this type of wildfire," Luke said. "Wildfires that wiped out communities. Wildfires that wiped out businesses. Wildfires that destroyed homes."

PHOTO: A helicopter with the Hawaii Army National Guard performs aerial water bucket pick up to fight wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Aug. 9, 2023.
A helicopter with the Hawaii Army National Guard performs aerial water bucket pick up to fight wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Aug. 9, 2023.
U.S. Dept. of Defense via AFP/Getty Images

The devastation has been widespread on the island, with before-and-after satellite images showing miles of scorched earth and infrastructure. On the west coast of the island, much of the historic town of Lahaina has been devastated.

While the winds died down to about 30 mph on Thursday, they still posed some difficulties for firefighters, who managed to get the fires to about 80% contained by Thursday afternoon.

The origin of the fire has not yet been determined.

Mass evacuations were in place on the island as hundreds tried to flee to the Maui airport.

President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration to make federal funding available to help those affected in Maui County.

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