By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)
Follow live updates about wildfires that are racing across part of Maui in Hawaii, destroying sections of a historic town on the island and forcing some to flee to the relative safety of the ocean, where the Coast Guard rescued them. The fires forced evacuations in some areas, including the popular tourist spot of Lahaina Town. The National Weather Service says Hurricane Dora, which is passing south of the island chain at a safe distance, was partly to blame for strong winds driving the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
The death toll from wildfires in Hawaii rose to at least 36, according to a statement from Maui County on Wednesday night.
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.
The fires left a swath of devastation for blocks in the historic town of Lahaina. Aerial video from the town showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening that he has ordered “all available Federal assets” to help combat wildfires that have devastated parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least six people.
The president said the Coast Guard and Navy are supporting response and rescue efforts, while the Marines are providing Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fires. The Hawaii National Guard has mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue operations.
Biden said the Transportation Department is working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from the island, while the Interior and Agriculture departments “stand ready to support post fire recovery efforts.”
In his statement, the president offered “condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones” and expressed gratitude toward “the brave firefighters and first responders who continue to run toward danger.”
Firefighting crews were continuing to battle fires in Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry, the County of Maui said on Facebook Wednesday afternoon. More than 2,100 people were housed overnight in four emergency shelters, the county said. Another 2,000 travelers were sheltering at the Kahului Airport.
The wildfires ripping through Maui left a swath of devastation for blocks in the historic town of Lahaina, videos and photos of the tourist destination show.
Historic buildings along Lahaina’s popular Front Street were charred and flattened skeletons on Wednesday, powerlines were draped across roadways and abandoned cars were blackened husks.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company, flew over the fire site on Wednesday and was shocked by a scene where it “looked like a bomb went off.”
“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that. We had tears in our eyes, the other pilots on board and the mechanics and me,” he said, recalling even the boats in the harbor were burned.
“We never thought we’d experience anything like this in our whole life,” he continued.
Lahaina holds strong cultural significance. It was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom under Kings Kamehameha II and III from 1820 to 1845 and served as a main port for the North Pacific whaling fleet, according to the National Park Service.
“We got out in the nick of time yesterday,” recalled Lahaina resident Keʻeaumoku Kapu. He was at the cultural center he runs in the historic section of town Tuesday, tying down lose objects in the wind, when his wife showed up at around 4 p.m. and said they needed to evacuate. “Right at that time, things got crazy. The wind started picking up,” he said.
Two blocks away they saw fire and billowing smoke. Kapu, his wife and a friend jumped into his pickup truck. “By the time we turned around, our building was on fire. It was that quick.”
They didn’t have time to pack up anything at their cultural center, Na Aikane o Maui, where they “had years and years of research material, artifacts,” he said.
They drove south to Maalaea, where they spent the night in the truck.
“Every time the wind blows, oh man, it’s like reliving it again,” Kapu said.
He said winds were still strong Wednesday. He got word that his home, in a section of Lahaina closer to the mountains, was OK. But he was eager to see for himself. He said, “there’s probably a couple hundred people here waiting for the roads to open.”
Officials are preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to accommodate up to 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires that swept across parts of Maui.
James Tokioka, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the center is not just for tourists, but also for locals.
“Local people have lost everything,” he said. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals.”
Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights were canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said on Facebook. The tourists were among those expected to be brought to the convention center.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said search and rescue efforts are continuing when conditions are safe to enter active fire areas. He warned that the number of confirmed fatalities could increase. So far, six people have been confirmed dead in the fires.
“This is a deeply somber day,” Bissen said. “The gravity of losing any life is tragic. As we grieve with their families, we offer prayers for comfort in this inconsolable time.”
One of the wildfires burned through the town of Lahaina in the middle of the night, some residents fleeing into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 14 people from the ocean off Lahaina, including two young children who were reunited with family members.
The fires were worsened by high winds from Hurricane Dora, which was passing south of the island chain.
“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane, which did not make impact on our islands, would cause this type of wildfires,” said Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who was acting governor while Gov. Josh Green was cutting short his personal travel to return to Hawaii. “Wildfires that wiped out communities.”
At least six people have been killed in wildfires that have raced across parts of Maui, Mayor Bissen said.
Bissen confirmed the deaths during a press conference Wednesday, but did not provide details, such as where the people were when they died.
Three separate wildfires have been burning on the Hawaiian island of Maui, including one that destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina. The fires prompted 13 evacuations, Bissen said, and there was only one road in and out.
More than 2,100 people spent the night in four shelters on the island. State officials said they did not want any visitors to come to Maui, and that current visitors should leave.
Lt. Gov. Luke said shelters are overflowing and resources are taxed. Thirty power lines are also down, leaving homes, hotels and shelters without electricity.
The Lahaina fire is not yet under control, Bissen said, and officials have not determined what started the wildfires.
“I can tell you that we did not anticipate having this many fires simultaneously,” he said.
Officials have released very little information about the scope of damage caused by the wildfires, but satellite images from NASA appeared to show active flames throughout much of the historic town of Lahaina. Another Maui wildfire was burning near the town of Kihei.
The satellite images seemed to support some videos and photos posted to social media sites that showed flames roaring through the town and burned-down buildings.
Alan Dickar’s Vintage European Posters gallery has been a fixture on Front Street in Lahaina for 23 years. But he watched the wildfires engulf the main strip of shops on Tuesday, and now is not sure what is left of his gallery. Front Street is popular with tourists, and Dickar said it was the “economic heart of this island.”
Dickar snapped video of the black skies and roaring flames before evacuating with three friends and two cats. Dickar is now in the rainforests of Haiku after evacuating to Maui Meadows and having to escape again because of the threat of wildfires Tuesday.
“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”
Some residents are already thinking about next steps. Kekai Keahi was in New Mexico dropping off his son at college when he found out the fire had destroyed his Lahaina community.
“There is no Lahaina,” he said. “Lahaina no exist anymore.”
His son won’t stay in New Mexico, and he will go back to Maui with him Wednesday.
“He gotta,” Keahi said. “We have to rebuild.”
Keahi, who is a teacher at Lahaina Intermediate School, helped build many homes in Lahaina. “I’m pretty sure we’ll pull together and rebuild. But I don’t know how many years it will take us to rebuild,” he said.
Gov. Green, who was scheduled to return to Hawaii from personal travel on Aug. 15, instead planned to return immediately, his office said Wednesday. He was expected to be back Wednesday evening.
Green has been in contact with the White House and is preparing to request emergency federal assistance sometime in the next two days, once he has a better idea of the damage, his office said in a news release.
Hundreds of families have been displaced and much of Lahaina on Maui has been destroyed, Green said in the statement.
“Heroic efforts by first responders have prevented many casualties from occurring, but some loss of life is expected,” he said. “Our entire emergency response team, including the Hawai‘i National Guard has mobilized and is being supported by FEMA.”
With power outages and cellular service and phone lines down in some areas, many people are struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some posted messages on Facebook, Reddit and other sites hoping the social media grapevine would bring word of their loved ones.
Tiare Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, was frantically trying to reach her siblings Wednesday morning as winds whipped the island. They live in a residential area of Lahaina, near where a gas station exploded, Lawrence said.
“There’s no service so we can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said from the upcountry Maui community of Pukalani. “We’re still having hurricane-force winds.”
Her home was serving as a refuge for 14 cousins and uncles who fled the heat, smoke and flames in Lahaina.
“It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” she said.
Lahaina is often thought of as just a tourist town, but has “a very strong Hawaiian community,” Lawrence said.
“I’m just heartbroken. Everywhere, our memories,” she said. “Everyone’s homes. Everyone’s lives have tragically changed in the last 12 hours.”
The County of Maui and other local government officials turned to Facebook and Twitter to warn residents that the 911 system was down on parts of the island, and that they should call police departments directly if needed.
Several burn patients from Maui were being treated at Straub Medical Center, the hospital said in a statement. The facility has the only specialized burn unit in Hawaii.
The Honolulu Emergency Services Department transported one woman in her 60s from Maui to the burn center, said department spokesperson Shayne Enright. The woman was in critical condition.
The department has also received reports of multiple patients being flown from Maui to Honolulu, Enright said.
The high winds that fanned wildfires on both Maui and the Big Island slowed Wednesday morning, gusting between 35-50 mph, a said Tina Stall, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
The highest winds Tuesday on the Big Island peaked at 82 mph and on Maui they hit 62 mph.
The winds were caused by a high pressure system common to Hawaii, which produces the trade winds; and Hurricane Dora passing safely south of the islands. “It’s kind of squeezing things in between, so that’s what’s been causing the winds,” Stall said. The winds will continue to diminish through the day Wednesday and should reach normal levels overnight as both systems move west of Hawaii, she said.
There was little chance of rain to help firefighters Wednesday, she said. Western Maui is mostly in a moderate drought, while the Big Island has some level of drought, with the northern part of that island considered abnormally dry, Stall said.
An estimated 2,000 travelers, some newly arrived and others from canceled flights, were sheltering at Kahului Airport on Maui early Wednesday morning, the county announced on Facebook. Officials were discouraging non-essential travel, and some airlines were offering free rescheduling for people who planned to travel to Maui in the next few days.
Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Clair Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; and Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts.
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