Hawaii wildfire death toll rises to 36


Several thousand residents of Hawaii 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.

The fire took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burnt 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. Officials earlier said that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people injured.

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

‘We barely made it out in time’

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their six-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, unsure if anything was left of their apartment.

As the family fled, a senior centre 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.

A father, mother and their son rest at an evacuation shelter after wildfires broke out on Maui.
Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso, and their son, Kama, all of Lahaina, rest at an evacuation shelter in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Wednesday. (Audrey McAvoy/The Associated Press)

Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived. Lahaina Town is a historically significant former capital that dates back to the 1700s and has long been a favourite 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 fires were the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

‘We had tears in our eyes’

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 harbour were scorched and grey smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.

WATCH | Wildfires scorch Maui:

Wind-whipped wildfires have burned homes and other buildings on the Hawaiian island.

“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.

Searching for family members

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

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

Officials were working to get communications restored, to distribute water, and possibly adding law enforcement personnel, Maj.-Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defence, told reporters Wednesday night. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 568,000 litres of water on the Maui fires.

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

“Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus — on Front Street in Lahaina — sustained extensive fire and structural damage,” he said. “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.”

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, including a firefighter who was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

Thousands in evacuation centres

Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.

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

Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire had started up on a hillside.

A burned-out boat floats in a monochromatic waterside scene. Smoke lingers in the air.
A charred boat lies along a scorched waterfront in Lahaina on Wednesday. (Mason Jarvi/Reuters)

“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.”

‘I don’t know what’s left’

U.S. 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.

WATCH | High winds propelled fires across the Hawaiian island of Maui:

Paradise burns as wildfires rip across Maui

High winds propelled fires across the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least six people and severely damaging the historic town of Lahaina.

Former president Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.

Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.

“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said.

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