At least 36 died as Wildfires burn through Hawaii

AP , Thursday 10 Aug 2023

Several thousand Hawaii residents raced to escape homes on Maui as the Lahaina fire swept across the island, killing at least 36 people and burning parts of a centuries-old town.

wildfires
The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. AP

 

The fire 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.

Maui county announced the updated death toll on its website late Wednesday, writing that no other details were currently available on the deaths. Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.

On Wednesday, Maui crews continued to battle blazes in several places on the island. Authorities urged visitors to stay away.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a 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 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. Fire alarms blared. As they drove away, downed utility poles and fleeing cars slowed their progress.

Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived. Lahaina Town dates back to the 1700s and has long been a favorite 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 Hawaiian fires were whipped 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.

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 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."

About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.

Tiare Lawrence was frantically trying to reach her siblings who live near where a gas station exploded in Lahaina.

“There’s no service, so we can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said from the Maui community of Pukalani.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Dept. of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, to distribute water, and possibly adding law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 150,000 gallons of water on the Maui fires.

State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement that a team was working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of the King Kamehameha III elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.

“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.

More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers. Another 2,000 travelers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were canceled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.

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.

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