Wildfires Take Maui by Surprise, Burn Through Historic Town
Audrey McAvoy, Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, and Nick Perry READ TIME: 5 MIN.
The sky was dark from smoke and flames were racing through Hawaii's historic town of Lahaina when Kamuela Kawaakoa returned to his apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water with his girlfriend and their 6-year-old son. They grabbed a change of clothes and ran as the bushes around them caught fire.
Across the street, a senior center erupted in flames. They called 911 but don't know if the people got out. Fire alarms blared. As they drove away Tuesday afternoon, downed utility poles and fleeing cars slowed their progress.
"We barely made it out in time," Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.
At least six people were killed when wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.
Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment, called Lahaina Surf, which is also where his dad and grandmother 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," he said. "I was helpless."
On Wednesday, crews were continuing to battle blazes in several places on the island. Officials said 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured. They feared the death toll could rise. Authorities urged visitors to stay away.
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.
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."
The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people from the water, including two children, who had jumped in to escape the flames and smoke.
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 the 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 had their flights canceled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.
Mauro Farinelli 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 he couldn't get his car out, 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 said he'd ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized 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.
Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it's tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.
"The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don't know what's left," he said.
Dickar took video of flames engulfing the main strip before escaping with three friends and two cats.
"Every significant thing I owned burned down today," he said. "I'll be OK. I got out safely."
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.
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.
Tiare Lawrence was frantically trying to reach her siblings who live near where a gas station exploded in Lahaina.
"There's no service so we can't get ahold of anyone," she said from the Maui community of Pukalani.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said the flames had wiped out communities and urged travelers to stay away.
"This is not a safe place to be," she said.
Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who was traveling. Green's office said he'd cut short his trip and was returning Wednesday evening.
Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires. A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Perry from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.