By Naveen Athrappully
At least 36 people have been confirmed dead in wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui Island, officials confirmed Thursday.
“As the firefighting efforts continue, 36 total fatalities have been discovered today amid the active Lahaina fire,” said a brief official update. The wildfires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far south of the state and made worse by dry conditions.
The wildfires took the island residents by surprise with the disaster leaving behind building rubble and burnt cars on what were busy streets.
Lahaina is a resort city on Maui and the largest tourist destination on the island. While some neighborhoods in the historic town were completely destroyed by the fires, adults and children jumped into the water to escape the flames. Coast Guard Lt. Elaine Simon told CBS that people had turned to water as a refuge. The Coast Guard later confirmed that they had rescued a dozen people.
“Maui can’t handle this. … A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes. … This is going to be devastating for Maui,” Alan Dickar, a business owner, told the outlet.
Others who escaped the disaster termed the scenario “apocalyptic.”
Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed. “Flyovers today of Lahaina town by US Civil Air Patrol and Maui Fire Department showed that more than 271 structures have been impacted,” said a press release on Aug. 9.
“Widespread damage to the West Maui town, the harbor and surrounding areas are being documented.”
Officials have issued the latest list of locations where potable water tankers are available in Upcountry: Kula Fire Station, L. Kula Hwy., and Copp Rd., Rice Park, and Crater Rd.; and in West Maui: Maui Prep, Lahaina Baseyard, and Lahaina Post Office.
They warned that people in Kula may experience low to no water pressure as “high winds and fires have damaged power lines to several of the pumping facilities.”
The county office announced that donations for Maui residents affected by fires are being accepted online.
On Aug. 9, a mass evacuation was held in Lahaina and Maui.
“A mass bus evacuation for visitors will be staged at Sheraton Maui Resort in Kaʻanapali this afternoon and take visitors directly to Kahului Airport. Five County of Maui buses, each with a capacity of 49 people, and five Polynesian Adventure Tours buses, each with a capacity of 50, will provide the transportation, with the first wave of buses expected to arrive at the Sheraton at about 4 p.m.,” said a report Wednesday.
Authorities have ordered motorists to not enter Lahaina during the active fire, “but people already in Lahaina may exit via Kahakuloa. Maui police are stationed at Ma’alaea and at Waihee to prevent entry into Lahaina until the area is secure. Only Kahakuloa residents may access Kahakuloa via Waihee.”
“West Maui remains without power and has no landline or cellphone service.”
Multiple laws have been suspended, including rules related to the rental or sale of essential commodities during emergencies and price increases of commodities.
State general revenue funds will be made available for relief activities that result from Hurricane Dora. The emergency declaration was approved by Matthew S. Dvoch, the acting attorney general for the state.
“Very dry conditions and strong and potentially damaging easterly winds caused by the passage of Hurricane Dora to the south of the State are contributing to the wildfire danger,” the emergency declaration states.
In an Aug. 8 statement, Hawaiian Electric also advised people to assume that any downed power line is energized and dangerous and to stay at least 30 feet away from them.
“Use extreme caution when driving. Power interruptions may cause traffic signals to stop working without warning. If you come to an intersection with a non-working traffic signal, treat it as a four-way stop,” it stated.
“If using a portable generator, make sure it is placed in a well-ventilated area (outside the home), and be sure to carefully follow all instructions in the manufacturer’s manual.”
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape from under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son grabbed a change of clothes and ran as the bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out in time,” Mr. Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As Mr. Kawaakoa and Ms. Yasso fled, a senior center 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.
Mr. Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived. Lahaina Town dates back to the 1700s and has long been a favorite destination for tourists.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Mr. Kawaakoa said. “I was helpless.”
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.”
State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement Wednesday that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of an elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.
“Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus—on Front Street in Lahaina—sustained extensive fire and structural damage,” he said. “The department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week,” he said.
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 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 hospitalized 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 six 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 centers. Another 2,000 travelers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were canceled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.
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, Mr. 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to the report.