WAILUKU, Hawaii (NEXSTAR) — 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 53 lives, making it the deadliest in the U.S. in recent 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.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Thursday that 53 had died, making it the deadliest U.S. blaze since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise. The death toll will likely rise, though, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been unreachable due to ongoing fires or obstructions. Maui County officials said more than 270 structures, including an iconic 120-year-old building on Front Street in Lahaina, have been either damaged or destroyed.
“It’s a new Lahaina,” Gov. Green said of the fire damage during a press conference Thursday night. “Respectfully, it looks like a bomb went off… It will shock you.”
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 spark-filled winds roared 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.
“These were large and fast-moving fires, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to get our arms around them and contain them. So, we’re hoping for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst.” Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
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 on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As the family fled, a senior center across the road erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn’t know if the people got out. As they drove away, downed utility poles and others fleeing in cars slowed their progress. “It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Kawaakoa said.
As the fires rage, 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.
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. As of Thursday evening, Gov. Green said many places without power would likely be without power for weeks or even months, though he noted authorities would work to get generators or other options to residents.
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 (568,000 liters) of water on the Maui fires.
The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape the flames and smoke, including two children.
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.”
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui on Thursday. He ordered all available federal assets to help with the response and said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search-and-rescue efforts.
“Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses and communities destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.
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.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, bemoaned the loss of so much in the town and to him personally.
“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said. “Every significant thing I owned burned down today.”
GoFundMe has created a list of verified fundraisers for those looking to provide monetary support online. On Thursday night, Gov. Green asked local Hawaiians with the capacity to help house the several hundreds who were displaced to consider doing so.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.