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Hawaii wildfires: 1,000 people reportedly missing in Maui

FILE - A wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities is left on Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
FILE - A wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities is left on Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Copyright Rick Bowmer/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Rick Bowmer/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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The number of people killed in devastating fires on the US island state has risen to 55.

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Catastrophic wildfires in Hawaii have killed at least 55 people, with thousands more missing or evacuated. 

Whipped up by winds from a distant hurricane, flames have devastated Lahaina on the island of Maui, with 80% of the historic town destroyed, according to Governor Josh Green.

He called the fires the "largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history", which will take many years and billions of euros to recover from. 

Authorities estimate 1,000 people are still missing, yet this could be due to the fact that communication lines are down.  

Rick Bowmer/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.Rick Bowmer/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Firefighters are still struggling to contain Maui's wildfires, which began on Tuesday. None are currently 100% contained, they say. 

The neighbouring Big Island is also grappling with blazes, though officials say these are now under control. 

Tens of thousands of visitors have been evacuated while 11,000 people remain without power on the western side of Maui, home to around 166,000 year-round.

United Airlines has stopped inbound flights to Kahului Airport and is now assisting in evacuation efforts. 

Tourists and local residents were forced to jump into the sea and tread water for hours in Lahaina, a town that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and dates back to the 1700s.  

Ty O'Neil/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii late Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.Ty O'Neil/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Green said on Thursday more than 1,700 buildings had been reduced to ashes. 

"It's going to take many years to rebuild," he told a news conference, as officials outlined plans to shelter the newly homeless in hotels and tourist rental properties.

Lahaina draws in two million tourists each year - some 80% of Hawaii's visitors.

"It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image with its own values," Green added, trying to strike a more upbeat tone. 

The flames have wiped away generations of history in the town, ravaging its 150-year-old banyan tree that was once a meeting place for the ocean community. 

Tiffany Kidder Winn/AP
Wildfire wreckage is seen Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.Tiffany Kidder Winn/AP

Sorched, the sprawling tree's survival now hangs in the balance. 

Green said the magnitude of the disaster surpassed that of 1960 when a tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii. This came one year after Hawaii became a US state.

US President Joe Biden has issued a "major disaster declaration" which releases funds for recovery from the federal government. 

Hurricane Dora off the islands’ coast has made spurred the fires on. The storm was moving west across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of Hawaii on Wednesday.

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Scientists say extreme weather events, such as wildfires and hurricanes, are linked to climate change, which is making them more intense, frequent and longer. 

Things will get worse unless people and governments drastically cut their carbon emissions, they say.

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