WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP): Thousands of Hawaii residents raced to escape homes on Maui as blazes swept across the island, destroying parts of a centuries-old town and killing at least 36 people in one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years.
The fire took the island by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood in Lahaina Town, which dates to the 1700s and has long been a favorite destination for tourists. Crews battled blazes in several places on the island Wednesday, and the flames forced some adults and children to flee into the ocean.
At least 36 people have died, according to a statement from Maui County late Wednesday that said no other details were available on the deaths. Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.
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.
“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.”
Tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 visitors 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.
The 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 Department 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.
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 Oahu, officials said.
Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that 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.
Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire had 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 ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He 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.
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.
Wildfires also burned on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who was traveling, and urged tourists to stay away.
“This is not a safe place to be,” she said.
Green’s office said he’d cut short his trip to return Wednesday evening.
Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the US West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires. A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
The 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California killed at least 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said most tourists who come to Maui visit Front Street.
“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said.
Dickar took video of flames engulfing the main strip before escaping with three friends and two cats.
“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”