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At least six dead after wildfires destroy large parts of town on Hawaiian island

todayAugust 11, 2023 4

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At least six dead after wildfires destroy large parts of town on Hawaiian island

At least 36 people have died after wildfires rampaged through parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Maui County confirmed the deaths after fires swept across Lahaina – a town of historic importance to Hawaii, and its former capital.

Gusts of up to 85mph and dry conditions helped fuelled the flames and prevented helicopters aiding the efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze, according to officials.

On Wednesday, governor Sylvia Luke declared a state of emergency and urged people not to travel to West Maui, describing it as “not a safe place to be”.

Thousands of residents have fled their homes, while more than 11,400 tourists had been evacuated from West Maui to nearby islands.

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP)

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The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames. Pic: AP

An aerial view of a wildfire in Kihei, Maui County, Hawaii, U.S., August 8, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Clint Hansen of Maui Real Estate Radio/TMX via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

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An aerial view of a wildfire in Kihei, Maui County

A further 1,500 visitors are expected to leave on Thursday, while United Airlines and American Airlines have sent planes to evacuate passengers.

Three fires remain active on Maui in Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry, according to County of Maui officials.

“Our main focus now is to save lives,” Maui mayor Richard Bissen Jr said.

“The gravity of losing any life is tragic. As we grieve with their families, we offer prayers for comfort in this inconsolable time.”

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Hawaii wildfires are ‘like a warzone’

As winds eased slightly, some aircraft resumed flights, enabling pilots to view the full scope of the devastation.

Aerial video from coastal Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses flattened, including in Front Street, where tourists gathered to shop and dine.

Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbour were scorched, and grey smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.

More than 270 structures have been damaged or destroyed so far, according to officials in Lahaina.

An aerial view shows damage along the coast of Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023 this screen grab obtained from social media video. Richard Olsten/Air Maui Helicopters/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

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An aerial view shows damage along the coast of Lahaina

A satellite image shows an infrared overview an area in Lahaina, Maui County
Pic:Maxar/Reuters

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A satellite image shows an infrared overview of an area of Lahaina, Maui County. Pic: Maxar/Reuters


A satellite image shows an overview of wildfires in Lahaina, Maui County
Pic:Maxar /Reuters

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A satellite image shows an overview of wildfires in Lahaina, Maui County. Pic: Maxar/Reuters

A satellite image shows wildfires in Maui. Pic: European Union/Copernicus Sentinel

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A satellite image shows wildfires in Maui. Pic: European Union/Copernicus Sentinel

The town dates back to the 1700s and was once the capital of Hawaii and seat of Kamehameha III during its period as a kingdom in the 1800s.

With its mixture of old and new, and its beach front resorts, Lahaina has long been a favourite destination for tourists.

‘Absolutely heart-wrenching’

Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company, who has been up and seen the devastation for himself, described the scenes as “horrifying”.

“I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to this,” he said.

“We were totally shocked at what we saw. We did not expect to see the extent of the destruction of Lahaina,” he told Sky News.

“Basically, the whole Front Street of Lahaina, all the shops, the historical buildings, everything, has been burnt right to the ground.

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A map showing the wildfires on Maui

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A map showing the wildfires on Maui

“There are hundreds of people homeless, there’s still no power in the whole town, people can’t get access to food, so it was just an absolutely heart-wrenching sight.

“And the really sad part about it too is the loss of the historical buildings on Front Street that can’t be rebuilt – so that whole area is levelled to the ground.”

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Hawaiians flee fire on boat

British rock star Mick Fleetwood, who has lived in Hawaii for decades, revealed his restaurant had been lost due to the blaze in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The Fleetwood Mac drummer wrote: “Fleetwood’s on Front Street has been lost and while we are heartbroken, our main priority is the safety of our dear staff and team members.

“On behalf of myself and my family, I share my heartfelt thoughts and prayers with the people of Maui.”

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US President Joe Biden offered his “deepest condolences” to the people of Hawaii – the country’s 50th state.

“Our prayers are with those whose homes, businesses, and communities are destroyed,” he said in a post on X.

“I have ordered all available federal assets on the Islands to help with response.

“And I urge all residents to continue to follow evacuation orders, listen to the instructions of first responders and officials, and stay alert.”

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Former president Barack Obama, who was born on Hawaii, described the images of the devastation as “tough to see” and urged people to donate money to help with the relief efforts.

‘A terrible disaster’

The governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, said on Wednesday that “loss of life is expected”.

“We have suffered a terrible disaster in the form of a wildfire that has spread widely as a result of hurricane-force winds in the region and underlying drought conditions,” he said.

“Maui and the Big Island both experienced significant fires. Much of Lahaina on Maui has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced.”

Acting governor Sylvia Luke, speaking at a press conference in Hawaii’s capital of Honolulu, said it would take Lahaina “years” to recover from the damage.

“The road to recovery will be long,” she said.

Alongside the destruction of businesses and homes, it is believed that one of Lahaina’s schools has suffered “extensive” damage in the fire.

A large banyan tree in Old Lahaina – which marks the place where King Kamehameha’s first palace stood – has also been burned in the fires, according to the town’s website.

    Hawaii

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    Pic: AP


    Pic: Jeff Melichar/TMX

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    Pic: Jeff Melichar/TMX

    Intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui. Pic: AP

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    Intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui. Pic: AP

    One Maui resident, Dustin Kaleiopum said he and his family had just “minutes to escape” their home before fire consumed it.

    “We had minutes to escape because an hour later, we would find out that our home had burned completely to the ground,” he told NBC – the US partner of Sky News.

    “Every single person that I work with, the people that I see at the bank, the grocery store, everyone I know is now homeless. In 36 hours our town has been burnt to ash. There’s nothing left,” he said

    At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Centre on Tuesday, Speedy Bailey, regional director for air-ambulance company Hawaii Life Flight, said.

    Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said 12 people had been rescued from the water off Lahaina.

    The Coast Guard responded to areas where people had fled into the ocean to escape the fire and smoky conditions, the county said in a statement on Tuesday.

    ‘Heartbreaking’

    Footage posted overnight showed flames affecting numerous buildings in the historic town centre. Some blocks were completely reduced to ash.

    Kaniela Ing, who grew up in the area and co-founded the Native Hawaiian-focused organisation Our Hawaii, described the destruction as “heartbreaking”.

    “If you start from one end of Front Street and walk to the other end, it’s like a physical timeline of the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” Mr Ing told NBC.

    Smoke from wildfires at Lahaina harbour

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    Smoke from wildfires at Lahaina harbour. Pic: AP

    Lahiana harbour. Pic: AP

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    Pic: AP

    Smoke billows near boats docked at Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023. Dustin Johnson/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. REFILE - REMOVING KAHULUI

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    Smoke billows near boats docked at Lahaina

    More than 2,100 people spent the night in four shelters on the island.

    Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 passengers who had their flights cancelled or had only recently arrived at the island, the county said.

    The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain, was partly to blame for gusts above 60mph (97kph).

    A charred boat lies in the scorched waterfront. Pic: Mason Jarvi

    Image:
    A charred boat lies in the scorched waterfront. Pic: Mason Jarvi

    Smoke obscures the old Lahaina courthouse as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023. Dustin Johnson/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. REFILE - REMOVING KAHULUI

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    Smoke obscures the old Lahaina courthouse

    The wind knocked out electricity, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters. Flights resumed on Wednesday as the strong winds somewhat diminished.

    High winds hampered firefighters

    The exact cause of the blaze has not yet been determined.

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    Telescope captures deadly Hawaii fires

    However, high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation, are likely to have contributed, according to Major General Kenneth S. Hara, the Adjutant General for the State of Hawaii.

    “We had all those three – so we knew the conditions were very dangerous for wildfires,” he told a press conference on Thursday.

    “The reason it spread so fast is, there were reports of gusts of up to 85mph, and that’s why Maui County had such a hard time doing containment of the fire.

    “And because the winds were so high, we couldn’t provide the helicopters to do the water bucket support.”

    Experts have also warned that climate change is increasing the likelihood of more extreme weather.

    “Climate change in many parts of the world is increasing vegetation dryness, in large part because temperatures are hotter,” said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

    Dr Thomas Smith, Associate Professor in Environmental Geography at London School of Economics and Political Science said that while wildfires are “not unusual” in Hawaii, this year’s fires are burning “a greater area than usual”.

    Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023. Dustin Johnson/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. REFILE - REMOVING KAHULUI

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    Smoke billows near Lahaina

    “And the fire behaviour is extreme, wit hfast spread rates and large flames,” he told Sky News.

    “The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer.

    “Temperatures have been above average, particularly overnight temperatures.

    “This is important because low relative humidity drives more extreme fire behaviour, and if relative humidity remains low overnight, the fires become difficult to control and can spread for multiple days.”

    Hawaii’s Big Island has also been affected by fires, although no injuries or destroyed homes had been reported there.

    Written by: Newsroom

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