KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) – A wildfire Ripped the heart Darkness engulfed the Hawaiian island of Maui Wednesday, burning much of a historic town and forcing residents to jump into the ocean to escape the flames. At least six people died and dozens were injured.
The fire continued to burn Wednesday afternoon. Driven by strong winds Hurricane Dora passed well south of the Hawaiian Islands. Officials fear that the death toll may increase.
As the wind speed decreased somewhat, some planes resumed their flights so that the pilots could see the full scope of the disaster. Aerial video from coastal Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses leveled to the ground, including on Front Street, where tourists flocked to shop and dine. Smoldering piles of trash piled up near the waterfront, boats burned in the harbor, and gray smoke billowed over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
“It’s horrible. I’ve been flying here for 52 years and I’ve never seen anything close to that,” said Richard Olston, a helicopter pilot with a tour company. “We had tears in our eyes, the other pilots and mechanics on the plane and myself.
Acting Governor Sylvia Luke said the flames had “destroyed communities” and urged travelers to stay away.
“It’s not a safe place,” he said.
The exact cause of the fire has not been determined, but a number of factors, including high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation, are likely, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, deputy director general of the Hawaii Department of State Conservation. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of more extreme weather.
“Climate change in many parts of the world is increasing the desiccation of vegetation, largely due to warmer temperatures,” said Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon State University’s Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. “Even if you have the same amount of rain, the higher the temperature, the faster things will dry out.”
The wind-driven blast swept through the area with terrifying speed and ferocity, burning through the intersections of downtown Lahaina’s 1700s wooden buildings and on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s been devastating since they explained it,” Thierry Lawrence said of the 14 cousins and uncles who fled the city and took refuge at his home in Bukalani, east of Lahaina.
Lahaina resident Kyumoku Kapu was tying up items loose in the wind at the cultural center he runs in Lahaina when his wife came by Tuesday afternoon to tell him they had to leave. “At that point, things got crazy and the wind started blowing,” Capu said, adding that they left “just in time.”
Two blocks away they saw fire and smoke. Kapu, his wife and a friend jumped into his pickup truck. “By the time we got back, our building was on fire,” he said. “It was so quick.”
Crews were battling three fires on Maui: Lahaina, south Maui’s Kihei area and upland, known as inland communities, Maui County spokeswoman Mahina Martin said.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said at least two homes were destroyed in a 1.7-square-mile (4.5-square-kilometer) fire Tuesday in the mountainous Kula region.
There were no reports of injuries or loss of homes in three wildfires burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said Wednesday. Firefighters extinguished some roof fires.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane DoraIt was about 500 miles (805 kilometers) south of the island chain, partly responsible for winds of more than 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power, hit homes and grounded firefighting helicopters in Maui.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday rescued 14 people, including two children, who fled into the sea to escape the fire and smoke zone, a district statement said.
Six people were killed in the fire on Maui, but search and rescue operations continued and the toll could rise, Bissen said.
Six patients were flown from Maui to Oahu Tuesday night, said Speedy Bailey, regional director of air-ambulance company Hawaii Life Flight. Three of them had severe burns and were taken to Straub Medical Center’s burn unit, he said. Others were taken to other Honolulu hospitals. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, he said.
A Maui firefighter was hospitalized in stable condition after suffering smoke inhalation, officials said Wednesday.
Luke issued an emergency announcement on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who was traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard to assist.
“Parts of Maui, where we have shelters, are breached,” Luke said. “We have resources that are taxed.”
President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening that he had ordered “all available federal assets” to help Hawaii. The president said the Coast Guard and Navy are supporting response and rescue efforts, and the Navy is providing Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fire.
No tally was available for the number of buildings burned or the number of evacuees, but officials said four shelters housing 2,100 people were open.
Kahului Airport, the main airport on Maui, is sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights have been canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said. Officials in Honolulu were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center to take in 4,000 displaced tourists and locals.
“Local people have lost everything,” said James Tokyoga, director of the Department of Commerce, Economic Development and Tourism. “They lost their home, they lost their animals.”
Kapu, who owns the Na Aikane o Maui Cultural Center in Lahaina, said he and his wife didn’t have time to pack anything before they were forced to flee. “We had years of research material, artifacts,” he said.
Alan Dicker said he’s not sure what’s left of his gallery of vintage European posters, which has been on Lahaina’s Front Street for 23 years. Before leaving with three friends and two cats, Tigger recorded a video of the flames engulfing the main area of shops and restaurants frequented by tourists.
“All the important things I owned were burnt today,” he said.
Lahaina is often thought of as a Maui tourist town, Lawrence said, but “we have a very strong Hawaiian community.”
“I am heartbroken. Our memories are everywhere,” she said. “Everybody’s houses. Everyone’s life has turned tragic in the last 12 hours,” he said.
This story has been edited to correct that Pissen, not Lahaina, is the mayor of Maui County.
Cinco Kelleher reports from Honolulu. Associated Press writer Beatrice Dubuis in New York contributed to this report.