On Wednesday night, a Hawaii wildfires in Maui’s center burned down a historic town and forced people to jump into the water to escape. At least six people died, many were injured, and 271 structures were destroyed.
As Hurricane Dora passed well to the south of the Hawaiian Islands, powerful winds continued to fuel the fires on Wednesday afternoon. Officials suspected that the number of deaths might increase.
“This is a deeply somber day,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen remarked. “The tragedy of losing any life is profound. As we mourn with their families, we offer prayers for comfort during this difficult time.”
As the wind speed diminished, some aircraft began flight, allowing pilots to observe the devastation in every aspect. According to Mahina Martin, a Maui County spokesman, flyovers over the seaside town of Lahaina by the US Civil Air Patrol and the Maui Fire Department revealed the extent of the destruction.
Aerial video showed numbers of homes and businesses in Lahaina destroyed, including on Front Street, a popular shopping and dining destination for tourists. Smoking rubble mounds were piled high along the waterfront, boats in the harbor were burnt, and gray smoke lingered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
“It’s terrifying. “I’ve been flying here for 52 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Richard Olsten, a tour company helicopter pilot. “We all had tears in our eyes, the other pilots on board, the mechanics, and me.”
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said the fires “wiped out communities,” and she asked people to avoid the area.
“This is unsafe,” she said.
The county reported that Maui officials had urged guests to depart Lahaina and were organizing a “mass bus evacuation” Wednesday afternoon to take them to the airport.
The county stated, West Maui is still without cell or landline phone service, as well as electricity.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for the Hawaii State Department of Defense, said high winds, low humidity, and dry vegetation likely caused the fire. Climate change is also increasing extreme weather, experts say.
“Climate change in many parts of the world is increasing vegetation dryness, in large part because temperatures are hotter,” said Oregon State University’s Oregon
Climate Change Research Institute director Erica Fleishman. “Even with the same precipitation, higher temperatures dry things out faster.”
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The wind-driven fire dashed across intersections and leapt across wooden buildings in Lahaina’s 1700s town center, a National Register of Historic Places site.
“From what they described, it was apocalyptic,” Tiare Lawrence said of her 14 cousins and uncles who fled to Pukalani, east of Lahaina.
Lahaina resident Keʻeaumoku Kapu was putting down loose objects at his cultural center when his wife arrived on Tuesday afternoon and advised him to evacuate. Kapu recalled, “Right at that time, things got crazy, the wind started picking up,” and they left “in the nick of time.”
Two blocks away a fire and smoke were visible. A friend, Kapu, and his wife rushed into his pickup truck. “By turning around, our building was on fire,” he claimed. “It happened quickly.”
Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin said crews were fighting three fires in Lahaina, Kihei, and Upcountry.
Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said at least two homes were destroyed Tuesday in a 1.7-square-mile (4.5-square-kilometer) fire in Kula, Upcountry Maui.
Mayor Mitch Roth said Wednesday that three Big Island wildfires have not injured or destroyed homes. Firefighters put out some roof fires.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), caused gusts topping 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out electricity, rocked homes, and grounded firefighting helicopters on Maui.
The county claimed Tuesday that the Coast Guard rescued fourteen people, including two children, who jumped into the ocean to escape the fire and pollution.
Bissen said Maui fires killed six people, but search and rescue activities could increase the number.