At least 36 people have died after wildfires, fanned by winds from a faraway hurricane, devastated much of the resort city Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island, the Maui County said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Multiple neighborhoods were burnt to the ground as the western side of the island was nearly cut off, with only one highway open and thousands to evacuate as officials told of widespread devastation to Lahaina, its harbour and surrounding areas.
Some people fled into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames.
“We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp. It’s like an apocalypse,” said Lahaina resident Mason Jarvi, who escaped from the city.
Jarvi showed Reuters pictures he took of the ashen-colored destruction along the Lahaina waterfront. Wearing shorts, he also showed blisters on his thigh that he said he suffered when riding through flames on his electric bike to save his dog.
Aerial video showed pillars of smoke rising from block after block of Lahaina, the largest tourist destination on Maui and home to multiple large hotels.
“It’s like an area was bombed. It’s like a war zone,” said helicopter pilot Richard Olsten, according to Hawaii News Now.
With firefighters battling three major blazes, western Maui was closed to all but emergency workers and evacuees.
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.
The fires, which started Tuesday night, also scorched parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. The state said thousands of acres burned.
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 Maui airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island, Sniffen had said earlier in the day.
Panicked evacuees posted images on social media showing clouds of smoke billowing over once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.
“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it. And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way,” said Dustin Johnson, who was in Lahaina Harbor working for a charter boat company that offers two-hour tours. He spoke from Kahului Airport, normally a 25-minute drive east of Lahaina.
Some people were forced to jump into the Pacific Ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them, according to a Maui County press release.
Officials said they were looking into witness reports of people being trapped in their cars.
“Local people have lost everything. They’ve lost their house. They’ve lost their animals. It’s devastating,” said Jimmy Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
At least 20 people suffered serious burns and were airlifted to Oahu, Hawaii News Now reported, citing officials.
Evacuation efforts were complicated by power outages and disruption to cell phone service, as communication with the west side of Maui was only available via satellite, Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke said.
“We have shelters that are overrun. We have resources that are being taxed,” Luke said.
Summer of Wildfires
The situation in Hawaii recalled scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe, and western Canada suffered unusually severe fires.
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 government officials must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
The White House issued a message of condolence from President Joe Biden, who praised the work of firefighters and ordered “all available Federal assets on the Islands to help with response.”
The National Guard, US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were mobilized, while the US Department of Transportation aided evacuation efforts, Biden said.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said U.S. assistance had already been authorized.
The cause in Maui had yet to be determined but the National Weather Service said the fires were fueled by a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity.
Officials said the winds from Hurricane Dora fanned the flames across the state. The storm was about 860 miles (1,380 km) southwest of Honolulu as of 11 a.m. local time (2100 GMT), the National Hurricane Center said.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said late on Wednesday that the National Weather Service has canceled the “Red Flag Warning” and “High Wind Advisory” for all Hawaiian islands.