KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) — A wildfire tore through the heart of the Hawaiian island of Maui in 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, dozens were wounded and 271 structures were damaged or destroyed.
The fires continued to burn Wednesday afternoon, fueled by strong winds from Hurricane Dora as it passed well south of the Hawaiian islands. Officials feared the death toll could rise.
“This is a deeply somber day,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. “The gravity of losing any life is tragic. As we grieve with their families, we offer prayers for comfort in this inconsolable time.”
As winds diminished somewhat, some aircraft resumed flights, enabling pilots to view the full scope of the devastation. Flyovers of the coastal town of Lahaina by U.S. Civil Air Patrol and the Maui Fire Department showed the extent of the loss, said Mahina Martin, a spokesperson for Maui County.
Aerial video showed dozens of homes and businesses in Lahaina flattened, including on Front Street, a favorite spot for tourists 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 other pilots on board and the mechanics, and me.”
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.
Maui officials urged visitors to leave Lahaina, and the island was organizing a “mass bus evacuation” Wednesday afternoon to take people directly to the airport, according to an update from the county.
West Maui remained without cell or landline phone service or electricity, the county said.
The exact cause of the blaze couldn’t be determined, but a number of factors, including high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation, likely contributed, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for Hawaii State Department of Defense. Experts also said 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. “Even if you have the same amount of precipitation, if you have higher temperatures, things dry out faster.”
The wind-driven conflagration swept into the area with alarming speed and ferocity, blazing through intersections and leaping across wooden buildings in the Lahaina town center, which dates to the 1700s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” Tiare Lawrence said of 14 cousins and uncles who fled the town and took refuge at her home in Pukalani, east of Lahaina.
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 were battling three fires in Maui: in Lahaina, south Maui’s Kihei area and the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry, said Mahina Martin, spokesperson for Maui County.
In the Upcountry community of Kula, at least two homes were destroyed Tuesday in a fire that engulfed about 1.7 square miles (4.5 square kilometers), County of Maui Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said.
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.
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 on Maui.
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, Bissen said.
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.”
President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening that he has ordered “all available Federal assets” to help Hawaii. The president said the Coast Guard and Navy are supporting response and rescue efforts, while the Marines are providing Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fires.
There was no count available for the number of people who have evacuated, but officials said there were four shelters open housing 2,100 people.
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 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.”
Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media Wednesday evening that it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.
“Michelle and I are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down,” he said.
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.
Lahaina is often thought of as 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.”
This story was edited to correct that Bissen is the mayor of the County of Maui, not Lahaina.
Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.