KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) — A wildfire tore through the heart of the Hawaiian island of Maui in total darkness Wednesday, reducing much of a historic town to ash and forcing people to jump into the ocean to flee the flames. At least six people died and dozens were wounded.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said the flames “wiped out communities,” and urged travelers to stay away.
“This is not a safe place to be,” she said.
The wind-driven conflagration swept into coastal Lahaina with alarming speed and ferocity, blazing through intersections and leaping across wooden buildings in the town center that dates to the 1700s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Aerial video revealed entire blocks of homes and businesses flattened, including on Front Street, a popular shopping and dining area. Other images portray a scene of near-complete devastation. Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront and gray smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of scorched trees.
“It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” Tiare Lawrence said of 14 cousins and uncles who fled as the inferno descended on the family’s hometown. “The heat. Smoke and flames everywhere. They had to get my elderly uncle out of the home.”
The relatives took refuge in Lawrence’s house in Pukalani, east of Lahaina. She was also frantically trying to reach her siblings Wednesday morning, but there was no phone service.
Lahaina resident Keʻeaumoku Kapu was tying down loose objects in the wind at the cultural center he runs in Lahaina when his wife showed up Tuesday afternoon and told him they needed to evacuate. “Right at that time, things got crazy, the wind started picking up,” said Kapu, who added that they got out “in the nick of time.”
Two blocks away they saw fire and billowing smoke. Kapu, his wife and a friend jumped into his pickup truck. “By the time we turned around, our building was on fire,” he said. “It was that quick.”
Crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the tourist destination on the western coast and an inland, mountainous region. In West Maui, 911 service was out and residents were directed to call the police department directly.
“Do NOT go to Lahaina Town,” the county tweeted hours before all roads in and out of the community of 12,000 residents were closed to everyone except emergency personnel.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters. Aircraft resumed flights Wednesday as the winds diminished somewhat.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday rescued 14 people, including two children, who had fled into the ocean to escape the fire and smoky conditions, the county said in a statement.
Fires killed six people on Maui, but search and rescue operations continued and the number could rise, County of Maui Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said at a Wednesday morning news conference. He said he had just learned the news and didn’t know the details of how or where the deaths happened.
Six patients were flown from Maui to the island of Oahu on Tuesday night, said Speedy Bailey, regional director for Hawaii Life Flight, an air-ambulance company. Three of them had critical burns and were taken to Straub Medical Center’s burn unit, he said. The others were taken to other Honolulu hospitals. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, he said.
Authorities said earlier Wednesday that a firefighter in Maui was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.
Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard to assist.
“Certain parts of Maui, we have shelters that are overrun,” Luke said. “We have resources that are being taxed.”
There’s no count available for the number of structures that have burned or the number of people who have evacuated, but officials said there were four shelters open and that more than 1,000 people were at the largest.
Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights were canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said.
Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in up to 4,000 of displaced tourists and locals.
“Local people have lost everything,” said James Tokioka, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals.”
Kapu, the owner of the Na Aikane o Maui cultural center in Lahaina, said he and his wife didn’t have time to pack up anything before being forced to flee. “We had years and years of research material, artifacts,” he said.
Alan Dickar said he’s not sure what remains of his Vintage European Posters gallery, which was a fixture on Front Street in Lahaina for 23 years. Before evacuating with three friends and two cats, Dickar recorded video of flames engulfing the main strip of shops and restaurants frequented by tourists.
“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”
Dickar, who assumed the three houses he owns are also destroyed, said it will take a heroic effort to rebuild what has burned.
“Everyone who comes to Maui, the one place that everybody goes is Front Street,” he said. “The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left.”
The fires weren’t only burning on Maui.
There have been no reports of injuries or homes lost to three wildfires burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said Wednesday. Firefighters did extinguish a few roof fires. One blaze is “pretty much under control,” he said. Another was 60% contained, and the other near Mauna Kea Resorts continued to have flareups, he said.
There are 30 power poles down around Lahaina, leaving homes, hotels and shelters without electricity, Bissen said. About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.
“It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas,” County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin said.
In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1.7 square miles (4.5 square kilometers), Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
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.
Fires were rare in Hawaii and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.
A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
Lahaina is often thought of just a Maui tourist town, Lawrence said, but “we have a very strong Hawaiian community.”
“I’m just heartbroken. Everywhere, our memories,” she said. “Everyone’s homes. Everyone’s lives have tragically changed in the last 12 hours.”