A search of the wildfire devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of obliterated neighborhoods and landmarks charred beyond recognition, as the death toll reached at least 36 and survivors told harrowing tales of narrow escapes with only the clothes on their backs.
A flyover of historic Lahaina showed entire neighborhoods that had been a vibrant vision of color and island life reduced to gray ash. Block after block was nothing but rubble and blackened foundations, including along famous Front Street, where tourists shopped and dined just days ago. Boats in the harbor were scorched and smoke hovered over the town, which dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.
Tiffany Kidder Winn’s gift store Whaler’s Locker, which is one of the town’s oldest shops, was among the many businesses destroyed. As she assessed the damage Thursday, she came upon a line of burned-out vehicles, some with charred bodies inside them.
“It looked like they were trying to get out, but were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get off Front Street,” she said. She later spotted a body leaning against a seawall.
Winn said the destruction was so widespread, “I couldn’t even tell where I was because all the landmarks were gone.”
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched growth covering the island and then feasting on homes and anything else that lay in its path.
The official death toll stood at 36 late Wednesday, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise. The Hawaii toll could rise, though, as rescuers reach parts of the island that had been inaccessible due to obstructions of the three ongoing fires, including the one in Lahaina that was 80% contained on Thursday, according to a Maui County news release. More than 270 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people have been injured, including some critically.
“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday.
He said search and rescue teams still won’t be able to access certain areas until the fire lines are secure and they’re sure they’ll be able to get to those areas safely.
The flames left some people with mere minutes to act and led some to flee into the ocean. A Lahaina man, Bosco Bae, posted video on Facebook from Tuesday night that showed fire burning nearly every building on a street as sirens blared and wind-blown sparks raced by. Bae, who said he was one of the last people to leave the town, was evacuated to the island’s main airport and was waiting to be allowed to return home.
Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old cook from Guatamala who came to the U.S in January of last year, said that when he heard the fire alarms Tuesday, it was already too late to flee in his car.
“I opened the door and the fire was almost on top of us,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday from an evacuation center at a gymnasium. “We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day, because the fire didn’t stop.”
Vasquez and his brother Eduardo escaped via roads that were clogged with vehicles full of people. The smoke was so toxic that he vomited. He said he’s not sure his roommates and neighbors made it to safety.
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described their harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son got back to their apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water, and only had time to grab a change of clothes and run as the bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out,” Kawaakoa, 34, said at an evacuation shelter, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
As the family fled, they called 911 when they saw the Hale Mahaolu senior living facility across the road erupt in flames.
Communications have been spotty on the island, with 911, landline and cellular service failing at times.
Chelsey Vierra’s grandmother, Louise Abihai, was living at Hale Mahaolu, and the family doesn’t know if she got out. “She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,” Vierra said Thursday. “She can walk. She is strong.”
Relatives are monitoring shelter lists and calling the hospital. “We got to find our loved one, but there’s no communication here,” said Vierra, who fled the flames. “We don’t know who to ask about where she went.”
As the fires raged, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 flew out of Maui on Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.
In coastal Kihei, southeast of Lahaina, wide swaths of ground glowed red with embers Wednesday night as flames continued to chew through trees and buildings. Gusty winds blew sparks over a black and orange patchwork of charred earth and still-crackling hot spots.
The fires were fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It’s the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
Wildfires aren’t unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze and, once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The Big Island is also currently seeing blazes, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.
Power was out in parts of Maui. Cellular service was down, too, making it difficult for many to check in with friends and family members. Some were posting messages on social media.
Major General Kenneth Hara, of the Hawaii State Department of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, distribute water, and possibly add law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of water on the Maui fires.
The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who had jumped into the water to escape the flames and smoke.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said Wednesday that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires.
Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire 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, 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.” President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. While traveling in Utah on Thursday, Biden pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.” Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on the island.