WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — Thousands of Hawaiians ran to flee their homes on Maui as flames swept across the island, destroying parts of a centuries-old city and killing at least 36 people in one of the deadliest wildfires in the United States in recent years .
The fire took the island by surprise, leaving burned cars on once-busy streets and smoking piles of debris where historic buildings had stood in the city of Lahaina, which dates back to the 18th century and has long been a popular tourist destination. On Wednesday, emergency workers were battling fires in several parts of the island, forcing some adults and children to flee into the sea.
At least 36 people have died, according to a Maui County statement late Wednesday, which said no further details were available. Officials previously said 271 buildings were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people were injured. The 2018 California bonfire killed at least 85 people and virtually leveled the town of Paradise.
Officials warned the Hawaii death toll could rise as the fires still burn and teams are dispatched to search charred areas.
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies on Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son were returning to their apartment after a quick run to the supermarket for water, only having time to grab a change of clothes and run when bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out,” Kawaakoa said Wednesday at a shelter, still unsure if there was anything left of her apartment.
As the family fled, a senior center across the street caught fire. They called 911 but didn’t know if people were getting out. As they drove away, downed power poles and others fleeing in cars hampered their progress. “It was so hard to just sit there and watch my town burn to ash and not be able to do anything,” said 34-year-old Kawaakoa.
As the fires raged, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 visitors left Maui Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to depart Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, the state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to receive the thousands of displaced people.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island has been “tested like never before in our lives.”
“We mourn together at this heartbreaking time,” he said in a recorded statement. “In the coming days, we will be stronger as a ‘Kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”
The fires were whipped by high winds from Hurricane Dora, which was passing far to the south. It is the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather conditions around the world this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
The fires in Hawaii are different from many fires in the western United States. They tend to erupt 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 down homes and forced thousands to evacuate. Fires are also raging on the Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there have been no reports of casualties or destroyed homes there.
When the wind died down on Maui on Wednesday, pilots could see the full extent of the devastation. Aerial footage from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses being leveled, including Front Street, where tourists once congregated to shop and dine. Smoking rubble piled high on the shore, boats in the harbor had burned, and gray smoke hung over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
“It’s terrible. I’ve flown here for 52 years and I’ve never seen anything remotely as good,” said Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot with a tour operator. “We had tears in our eyes.”
Search and rescue teams are fanning out in the devastated areas hoping to find survivors, Adam Weintraub, communications director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Addressing concerns that there could be more fatalities, Weintraub acknowledged, “These were large and fast-spreading fires and it’s only recently that we’ve started to contain and contain them.” So we’re hoping for the best , but are prepared for the worst.”
About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. With cellular and phone lines going down in some areas, many people had difficulty checking in with friends and family members who lived near the wildfires. Some posted messages on social media.
Tiare Lawrence was desperately trying to reach her siblings, who live near the site of a gas station explosion in Lahaina.
“There’s no service, so we can’t reach anyone,” she said of the Maui community of Pukalani.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara of the Hawaii Department of Defense told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to restore communications, distribute water and possibly hire law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters 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 the flames and smoke, including two children.
Among the injured were three people with severe burns who were flown to Oahu, officials said.
Bissen, the mayor of Maui County, said at a news conference Wednesday morning that officials had not yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but had pointed out the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds to officials.
Mauro Farinelli of Lahaina said the wind started blowing hard Tuesday and then a fire somehow broke out on a hill.
“It just pierced everything with incredible speed,” he said, adding it was “like a blowtorch.”
The wind was so strong that he blew his garage door off its hinges and got his car stuck in the garage, Farinelli said. So a friend drove him to an emergency shelter along with his wife Judit and his dog Susi. He had no idea what had happened to their house.
“We’re hoping for the best,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s over.”
President Joe Biden ordered all available federal resources to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard has mobilized helicopters to help with firefighting and search and rescue operations.
“Our prayers are with those whose homes, businesses and communities have been destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.
Gov. Josh Green cut short a trip and planned to return Wednesday night. In his absence, acting governor Sylvia Luke issued a declaration of emergency and urged tourists to stay away.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three homes in Lahaina, grieved the loss of so many things in town and for him personally.
“The two central blocs are the economic heart of this island and I don’t know what’s left,” he said. “All the significant things I owned burned down today.”
Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Perry from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.