A wildfire that swept through the resort town of Lahaina on Hawaii's Maui island has killed at least 36 people, authorities said, while leaving smoldering ruins in its wake and forcing thousands to flee the onetime capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Video footage showed neighborhoods and businesses razed and vehicles burned to a crisp across the western side of the U.S. island as the wildfires cut off most roads out of Lahaina. The town is one of Maui's prime attractions, drawing 2 million tourists to the island each year, or about 80 percent of its visitors.
Maui resident Dustin Kaleiopu said his family, now relocated to the other side of the island, had only had minutes to evacuate and lost two-generational family homes to the flames.
"There are still so many people that we are unable to get in touch with, and that still remains true for many families here," Kaleiopu said in an interview on NBC News' "Today" program. "Everyone I know is now homeless."
Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke said late on Wednesday that officials were still assessing the damage.
"It will be a long road to recovery," she said.
President Joe Biden on Thursday approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, allowing affected individuals and business owners to apply for federal housing and economic recovery grants, the White House said in a statement.
In a call with Hawaii's governor, Biden also expressed his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property, the White House said.
The cause of the Maui wildfires had yet to be determined, but the National Weather Service said a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity fueled the fast-moving conflagration.
Wildfires occur every year in Hawaii, according to Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, but this year's fires are burning faster and bigger than usual. He blamed the low rainfall, higher temperatures, and nearby storm systems, which whipped up winds.
Three separate blazes
Firefighters were battling three separate blazes on the island, officials said late on Wednesday night, without providing further details. Fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland Upcountry region, and Kihei in South Maui.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a Facebook video message post that "the resolve of our families, businesses, and visitors have been tested like never before in our lifetime, with lives lost and properties decimated," but vowed that Maui would "move forward".
Such scenes of devastation have become all too familiar elsewhere in the world. Wildfires, often caused by record-setting heat this summer, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe. In western Canada, a series of unusually severe fires sent clouds of smoke over vast swaths of the U.S., polluting the air.
Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that countries must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
The Maui blazes began on Tuesday night as powerful winds from Hurricane Dora, hundreds of miles to the southwest, fanned the flames. By Thursday, the strong winds had largely abated.
Beyond the human casualties, the fire burned cultural treasures such as Lahaina's historic 60-foot-tall banyan tree, which marked the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III's 19th-century palace stood, according to local reports.
Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, citing official reports from flyovers conducted by the U.S. Civil Air Patrol and the Maui Fire Department.
As of early Thursday, the tracking site Poweroutage.us reported about 11,000 homes and businesses were without power on Maui, which has a year-round population of 165,000.
The wildfires spread quickly through populated areas of Lahaina, a city of about 13,000 people.
Julius Limbaga, 38, woke up from a nap on Tuesday when he smelled smoke in his Lahaina apartment, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. "The fire was so fast and in just a blink of an eye it was everywhere," Limbaga said.
He told the newspaper that he doused himself with water and ran to the Lahaina harbor, his rubber slippers melting as he ran. The Coast Guard rescued him from the harbor waters and took him to be treated for burns on his feet and legs.
A Lahaina resident who had lost his home but stayed in town to help saw bodies floating by the seawall in the harbor, Hawaii News Now (HNN) reported. The U.S. Coast Guard asked boaters to look for anyone still in the waters off Lahaina where people jumped in to avoid the flames.
More than 2,100 people were being housed at the county's four emergency shelters, the news site said. At least 20 people suffered serious burns, and several were airlifted to Oahu for medical treatment.
More than 11,000 travelers were evacuated from Maui, Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation said late on Wednesday. Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully, he said earlier in the day.
A mass bus evacuation to the Kahului Airport for visitors in West Maui was to resume at 8:30 am on Thursday, officials said. (Reuters)