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'The worst disaster I've ever seen': Residents dived into the ocean as wildfires ripped through Maui

Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, US, 9 August, 2023.
Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, US, 9 August, 2023. Copyright Dustin Johnson/HANDOUT
Copyright Dustin Johnson/HANDOUT
By Ruth Wright with Agencies
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Already the state's deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island, the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue, officials say.

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Wildfires fanned by winds of a distant hurricane have killed at least 53 people and devastated much of the resort city of Lahaina on Hawaii's Maui island. Thousands have had to evacuate as some fled into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames.

Multiple neighbourhoods were burnt to the ground as the western side of the island was nearly cut off with only one highway open. 

Officials told of widespread devastation to Lahaina, its harbour and surrounding areas.

“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told The Associated Press. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed by fires that were still burning, he said.

Already the state's deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island, the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue, Green added.

“We are heartsick,” Green said.

Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, citing official reports from flyovers conducted by the US Civil Air Patrol and the Maui Fire Department.

"We just had the worst disaster I've ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp. It's like an apocalypse," said Lahaina resident Mason Jarvi, who escaped from the city.

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.

Jeff Melichar/TMX/via REUTERS
Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, US. 9 August, 2023.Jeff Melichar/TMX/via REUTERS

Wildfires bring death and injury

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, and a firefighter was hospitalised in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that he didn't have details on how or where on the island the deaths occurred. 

He said 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.

How has the US responded?

A state of emergency was declared on Thursday.

President Joe Biden said he'd ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilised 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.

Mason Jarvi/HANDOUT
A charred boat lies in the scorched waterfront after wildfires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated Maui's city of Lahaina, Hawaii, US. 9 August, 2023.Mason Jarvi/HANDOUT

'Like a blowtorch'

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

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“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 has happened to their home.

“We’re hoping for the best,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s gone.”

Wildfires were also burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there. Roth said firefighters had needed to extinguish some roof fires and there were continuing flareups of one fire near the Mauna Kea Resorts.

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain, was partly to blame for the strong winds.

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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.

Tourists try to leave

At least 4,000 tourists were trying to leave western Maui on Wednesday, said Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation. Though at least 16 roads were closed, Maui airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island, Sniffen said.

Panicked evacuees posted images on social media showing clouds of smoke billowing over once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.

"I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it. And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way," said Dustin Johnson, who was in Lahaina Harbor working for a charter boat company that offers two-hour tours. He spoke from Kahului Airport, normally a 25-minute drive east of Lahaina.

"Local people have lost everything. They've lost their house. They've lost their animals. It's devastating," said Jimmy Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

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What caused the Maui wildfires?

The cause has yet to be determined but the National Weather Service said the fires were fueled by a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity.

Officials said the winds from Hurricane Dora fanned the flames across the state. The storm was about 860 miles (1,380 km) southwest of Honolulu as of 11 a.m. local time (2100 GMT), the National Hurricane Center said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said late on Wednesday that the National Weather Service has cancelled the Red Flag Warning and High Wind Advisory for all Hawaiian islands.

The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape flames and smoke, including two children.

Summer of wildfires

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.

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The situation in Hawaii recalled scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe, and western Canada suffered unusually severe fires.

Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that government officials must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.

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