Hawaii: 'Apocalyptic' wildfires leave at least 53 dead on island of Maui

At least 53 people have been killed in the fires which have damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

Wildfires that have ripped through the Hawaiian island of Maui – here’s the latest from ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith

At least 53 people have been killed in “apocalyptic” wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The wind-fuelled wildfire tore through the heart of the island on Wednesday, destroying dozens of homes and businesses in a historic tourist town and injuring at least two dozen others.

Some people even tried to jump into the ocean to escape the flames and smoke, with the Coast Guard rescuing 14 people (including two children) from the water.

The death toll was raised from at least six to 53 as of Thursday – Friday in the UK.

It is the deadliest fire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and razed the town of Paradise.

‘Oh my gosh look at the harbour’: Aerial footage captured by Richie Olsten shows the extent of the damage in Lahaina

Officials warned that the death toll could rise, with the fires still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.

Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.

More than 2,100 people spent the night in evacuation centres, another 2,000 travellers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were cancelled.

More than 11,000 travellers made it off the island on Wednesday after airlines brought in larger planes to get more people off Maui. Another 1,500 are expected to leave on Thursday.

People gather while waiting for flights at the Kahului Airport on Wednesday / Credit: AP

About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early on Wednesday.

With mobile service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”

“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”

Local resident Clint Hansen told CNN that Lahaina has been “devastated”.

“People jumping in the ocean to escape the flames, being rescued by the Coast Guard. All boat owners are being asked to rescue people. It’s apocalyptic.”

‘What we saw looked like an area that had been bombed and burned by in a war zone,’ Richie Olsten of Air Maui Helicopters said

Fire was widespread in Lahaina, including Front Street, an area of the town popular with tourists, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin said.

Among those injured were three people with critical burns who were flown to Straub Medical Centre’s burn unit on the island of Oahu.

At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Centre and a firefighter was hospitalised in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

One local resident described the scenes as ‘apocalyptic’. / Credit: Alan Dickar via AP

Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, 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 trapped his car in the garage, Mr Farinelli said. 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.”

Satellite images show the town of Lahaina in June (left) compared to August (right) / Credit: Maxar Technologies via AP

President Joe Biden has ordered all available federal assets to help with the response.

He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilised 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,” President Biden said in a statement.

Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.

Fire and smoke filled the sky in Maui on Tuesday / Credit: County of Maui via AP

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles, was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph that fanned the flames and knocked out power.

Winds were recorded at 80 mph in inland Maui and one fire that was believed to be contained earlier on Tuesday flared up hours later with the big winds.

This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui / Credit: AP

The high winds, combined with dry conditions and low humidity, added fuel to the wildfires.

The winds also stopped helicopters from fighting the fire from above.

The wind has decreased slightly on Wednesday as Hurricane Dora moved further away, with gusts of 50mph.

A drop in wind speed does not necessarily mean “the fires will go away”, National Weather Service Meteorologist Ian Morrison told CNN, but it will help firefighters.

People watch as smoke and flames fill the air on Front Street in Lahaina on Tuesday / Credit: Alan Dickar via AP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance with a fire that threatened about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch, a rural community with a population of more than 500 on the Big Island, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

When the request was made, the fire had burned more than 600 acres and was uncontained.

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.

The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, was also dealing with power outages, downed power lines and traffic problems on Wednesday, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the US 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 previously struck the Big Island in 2021, burning homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.

The fires were the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say the climate crisis is increasing the likelihood of such events.

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