At least 36 people confirmed dead in devastating wildfires: Maui County
LAHAINA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Maui County says 36 people are now confirmed dead in the devastating wildfires that have decimated entire communities, including historic Lahaina.
The death toll — up from six earlier in the day — makes the wildfires one of the deadliest disasters in Hawaii history and was announced Wednesday night as firefighters continued to battle flames and search for survivors. A county spokesperson said all of those who died were in Lahaina.
Earlier in the day, authorities announced Civil Air Patrol and state flyovers found at least 271 structures in the community were damaged or destroyed by the flames.
Meanwhile, at least three large fires on Maui — including the blaze in Lahaina — are still active and out of control, which means a full picture of the devastation hasn’t yet come into view. Lahaina appears to be the hardest hit area and access to the area is still being blocked off.
In addition to the fatalities, officials say dozens more are injured, some critically.
And thousands are displaced, with hundreds flocking to emergency shelters and many more sleeping in their cars, including at a Walmart that opened its bathrooms to evacuees.
“Tragedy that hits one of us is felt by all of us,” said Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen in a video update late Wednesday night. “These past few days, the resolve of our families, businesses and visitors have been tested like never before in our lifetime.”
Given the scale of the disaster, Maui County’s emergency response is strained and Hawaii National Guard and federal resources are offering new aid. On Wednesday, President Biden offered his condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones and offered federal support.
Hawaii has asked Biden for a presidential disaster declaration. The White House confirmed early Thursday morning that Biden has approved the disaster declaration for Hawaii, unlocking federal resources to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by the ongoing wildfires.
In Lahaina on Wednesday, firefighters continued to battle the flames as first responders and residents picked through the rubble and searched for survivors. Lahaina resident said his home was burned down, but he stayed in the town to help. “We’re gonna do our best to get past this and it’s gonna be tough,” he said. “It’s going to take years to fix. This is not even the worst of it.”
He added, “We’ve still got dead bodies floating on the seawall. They’ve been sitting there since last night. We’ve been pulling people out since last night, trying to save peoples’ lives.”
Others also recounted similar stories, and the Coast Guard asked boaters in the area to be on the lookout for anyone else in the waters off Lahaina — where people jumped to avoid the flames.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke, who announced Tuesday night that the Hawaii National Guard had been activated, said it could take months to assess the full scope of the damage from the fires.
“This is the entire state coming together to assist our family on Maui,” she said, at a news conference Wednesday. “We never anticipated a hurricane that did not make impact would cause this type of wildfires. Wildfires that wiped out communities. Wildfires that wiped out businesses.”
Here are more of the latest updates:
- Maui County says more than 100 firefighters at any one time are battling the active wildfires on the island, where winds were finally abating on Wednesday night. One bit of good news: Firefighters weren’t able to use helicopters to douse the flames Tuesday because of the high winds, but the flames are being fought by air now.
- Maui County did not have any additional details about the 36 people killed in the wildfires, but the devastating death toll came as frantic residents took to social media to plead for help in finding their loved ones. Others confirmed they had lost people in the fires.
- More than 2,100 people were being housed at the county’s four emergency shelters on Wednesday and the American Red Cross of Hawaii is putting out an urgent call for volunteers. Two new shelters have opened in Kahului at King’s Cathedral (777 Maui Veteran’s Highway in Kahului) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1300 Maui Lani Parkway in Kahului).
- Authorities confirmed at least 20 people suffered serious burns in the wildfires and several were airlifted to Oahu. Three are in critical condition at the Straub Medical Center.
- President Biden has approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, unlocking federal resources to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by the ongoing wildfires, the state announced Thursday morning.
- Gov. Josh Green said it’s almost certain the damage estimate from the blaze will be in the billions. He’s cut short personal travel and will return to Hawaii on Wednesday night and is expected to access Lahaina on Thursday.
- Green ordered Thursday that all U.S. and Hawaii state flags be flown as half-staff at the Hawaii State Capitol, all state offices and facilities effective immediately in mourning of those lost from the Maui wildfires. They are to be remain lowered until further notice while recovery efforts are underway.
- The state says it will evacuate 4,000 tourists out of Maui to Oahu, where they will be put up at the Hawaii Convention Center or seek their own accommodations.
- Mass evacuations, which started Wednesday, will continue Thursday for both residents and visitors in West Maui. Bus boarding happens at Whalers Village fronting Kaanapali Parkway starting at 8:30 a.m. Visitors will be taken directly to Kahului Airport via three Roberts Hawaii Motor Coaches and residents will be taken to a central Maui shelter.
- Tens of thousands of people across Maui are still without power after high winds downed more than 30 poles Tuesday and flames destroyed even more infrastructure. Cell service is also nonexistent in some places and 911 service not available in some places. A Hawaiian Electric spokesperson said crews are working swiftly to restore power but keeping them out of harm’s way is also paramount.
- A growing list of flights into Maui from the mainland have been canceled. Travelers are being urged to check with their carrier before going to the airport.
- At least 14 people had to be rescued from waters off Lahaina on Tuesday night after jumping into the water to escape the raging wildfire, authorities confirmed. Among them: Two young children who were reunited with family.
The wildfires on Maui started burning early Tuesday, but continued throughout the day and spread with a frightening speed. Eyewitnesses described an apocalyptic scene in Lahaina town, where residents were forced to jump into the harbor waters to avoid fast-moving flames from a massive brush fire that’s destroyed much of the historic area — and continues to burn.
Some survivors said they had only minutes to get to safety.
Residents say an overwhelmed fire force — fighting flames all day amid powerful winds — could do little as flames ripped through the historic community, destroying dozens of homes and businesses in one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot who flew over Lahaina town on Wednesday morning, said much of the historic town appears gone. “It’s like an area was bombed. It’s like a war zone,” he said.
Luke confirmed Tuesday night that the Hawaii National Guard had been activated to help respond to the sprawling fire crisis. Authorities said in addition to personnel, aircraft were being deployed.
An emergency proclamation remains in effect as Luke and others Hawaii leaders are encouraging those with Maui travel plans to postpone or cancel altogether.
Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Jim Ireland confirmed to HNN that eight patients had been transferred from Maui to Oahu, including three who are in critical condition.
“It’s been very heartbreaking for all of us and frustrating because if we weren’t an island we would drive over and help them from Honolulu,” Ireland said.
Perhaps one of the most harrowing details of the ongoing disaster emerged Tuesday night as evacuees recounted stories of being forced to jump into Lahaina’s water to flee the flames.
Subsequent social media posts showed a terrifying wall of flames descending on famous Front Street in Lahaina and destroying everything in its path. One heart-stopping video posted by fleeing residents shows uncontrolled flames in all directions.
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Lahaina resident Tiare Lawrence compared the scene to something out of the apocalypse, with people running for their lives.
“It’s just so hard. I’m currently Upcountry and just knowing I can’t get a hold of any of my family members. I still don’t know where my little brother is. I don’t know where my stepdad is,” she said.
“Everyone I know in Lahaina, their homes have burned down.”
Thankfully, in an update on Thursday, Lawrence said she has been reunited with her loved ones.
Front Street business owner Alan Dickar says he watched business after business in the historic district going up in flames.
“Buildings on both sides were engulfed. There were no fire trucks at that point; I think the fire department was overwhelmed,” Dickar said. “That is the most important business street on Maui.”
The brush fire in Lahaina is one of at least seven sizable wildfires that firefighters were battling statewide Tuesday amid treacherous conditions — powerful winds, low humidity and dry brush
The winds — fueled by Hurricane Dora as it passes south of the state — topped 55 mph in many spots, with gusts to 70 to 80 mph. In addition to wildfires, first responders are grappling with downed trees and damaged structures. Also on Maui, thousands remain without power.
And while the Lahaina fire appears to have wrought the most devastation, widespread damage is also being reported in Kihei and Kula, where evacuations also remain in place.
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