In WAILUKU, Hawaii, a statement was posted on the county website Wednesday evening by Maui County, indicating that a minimum of 36 individuals have lost their lives in the Lahaina fire.
Fueled by powerful winds generated by Hurricane Dora, which was moving far south of the area, wildfires caught Maui off guard. The aftermath revealed charred vehicles lining streets that were once bustling, and heaps of smoldering debris now marking the spots where historic structures once proudly stood. Throughout the night, the flames raged, compelling both adults and children to seek refuge in the ocean.
Beforehand, reports indicated that 271 structures had suffered damage or been reduced to ashes, causing injury to numerous individuals.
As of Wednesday, firefighting crews persisted in their efforts to combat blazes in multiple locations across the island. Authorities strongly advised visitors to steer clear of the affected areas.
On Tuesday, August 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii, a scene of devastation unfolded as flames consumed the revered Waiola Church’s hall, a historic landmark. The inferno also extended its reach to the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, both situated along Wainee Street. The destructive blaze painted a somber picture of destruction, casting a shadow over these cherished sites.
Under skies choked with smoke on Tuesday afternoon, Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso recounted a terrifying escape. With their 6-year-old son in tow, they hastily collected a change of clothes and fled as flames engulfed the surrounding bushes.
“We managed to escape just in the nick of time,” Kawaakoa recounted while sheltered in an evacuation center on Wednesday. The couple remained uncertain about the fate of their apartment, unsure if anything remained after the harrowing ordeal.
Amid their frantic escape, Kawaakoa and Yasso bore witness to the unfolding chaos, as flames consumed a senior center nearby. Their urgent call to 911 echoed their concern for the inhabitants, but uncertainty hung heavy – they remained unaware if anyone had managed to escape. The shrill wails of fire alarms added to the cacophony.
Navigating their way through the tumultuous scene, their progress was hampered by toppled utility poles and cars racing to safety.
For Kawaakoa, 34, the Lahaina Surf apartment building held profound significance, as it had been his childhood home, housing not only him but also his father and grandmother. Lahaina Town, steeped in history dating back to the 1700s, had always been a cherished haven for tourists seeking its allure.
The helplessness was palpable, as Kawaakoa shared his heartache, “It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything.”
These fires stood as the latest entry in a series of calamities provoked by extreme weather patterns gripping the world this summer. The consensus among experts remains that climate change is intensifying the likelihood of such catastrophic events.
With a slight easing of the winds on Maui, some flights were able to resume on Wednesday, providing pilots with the opportunity to witness the extent of the devastation that had unfolded. Aerial footage captured from Lahaina depicted a heart-wrenching scene, as numerous homes and businesses lay in ruins. Among them was Front Street, once bustling with tourists shopping and dining, now reduced to ashes. The shoreline was marked by towering heaps of debris, a stark contrast to the scorched boats in the harbor. A melancholic gray smoke hung in the air, mingling with the desolation of charred trees that stood bare like skeletal remains.
The gravity of the situation was deeply felt, even by those accustomed to the skies. Richard Olsten, a seasoned helicopter pilot working for a tour company, expressed his profound shock, saying, “It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that.” He went on to reveal the emotional impact, stating, “We had tears in our eyes,” a testament to the raw emotion stirred by the heartbreaking scene of destruction.
On Wednesday, State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi issued a statement outlining proactive measures in response to the potential loss of a longstanding Lahaina elementary school. King Kamehameha III Elementary, which has stood for over a century, is at risk due to the fire’s impact. Hayashi reported that unofficial aerial imagery revealed substantial fire-related and structural devastation at the campus situated on Front Street in Lahaina. While prioritizing the restoration of normalcy, the Department is diligently crafting contingency plans. Nevertheless, most Maui schools are slated to remain closed for the remainder of the week.
Amidst the chaos, the Coast Guard carried out a heroic rescue effort, plucking 14 individuals from danger. These survivors had leaped into the water, seeking refuge from the encroaching flames and choking smoke. The group included two children, underscoring the dire circumstances faced by families.
Tragically, injuries were sustained in the disaster. Among them, three individuals with critical burns were airlifted to the burn unit at Straub Medical Center on Oahu. Additionally, Maui Memorial Medical Center received at least 20 patients for treatment. A firefighter was also hospitalized, but fortunately in stable condition, having been affected by smoke inhalation during the firefighting efforts.
In a Wednesday morning news conference, Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, expressed a lack of specific information regarding the six reported deaths and their locations across the island. He noted that investigations into the fires’ immediate causes had not yet commenced, but officials did highlight the combined impact of dry conditions, low humidity, and strong winds as contributing factors.
As the crisis unfolded, more than 2,100 individuals sought refuge in evacuation centers on Tuesday night. An additional 2,000 travelers found shelter at Kahului Airport after numerous flights were canceled due to the emergency. Preparations were underway to accommodate displaced tourists and locals at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu, as the scope of the disaster necessitated a massive response.
Mauro Farinelli, a resident of Lahaina, recounted the abrupt onset of powerful winds on Tuesday. Inexplicably, a fire ignited on a hillside, quickly transforming into a raging inferno. He described the fire’s advance as astonishingly swift, likening it to the force of a blowtorch.
The intensity of the winds was such that they forcibly dislodged his garage door and trapped his vehicle inside. Seeking safety, Farinelli, along with his wife Judit and their dog Susi, were driven to an evacuation shelter by a friend. The fate of their home remained uncertain, an unsettling reality amidst the chaos.
“We’re holding onto hope, but the grim reality is sinking in,” he conveyed, his voice tinged with resignation, “we’re fairly certain it’s been lost.”
President Joe Biden responded swiftly to the crisis, declaring the deployment of all available federal resources to aid in the response efforts. He highlighted the Hawaii National Guard’s activation of Chinook helicopters, which would contribute to fire suppression and assist in search and rescue operations on Maui. In a statement, President Biden conveyed his empathy, saying, “Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses, and communities destroyed.”
Former President Barack Obama, who has a deep connection to Hawaii as his birthplace, expressed his sorrow on social media. He acknowledged the emotional weight of witnessing the distressing scenes unfolding in a place held dear to many.
The devastation hit close to home for Alan Dickar, proprietor of a poster gallery and owner of three houses in Lahaina. Recognizing Front Street’s role as a magnet for tourists, he underscored its significance as the economic hub of the island. He lamented the uncertainty surrounding the extent of the damage, saying, “I don’t know what’s left.”
Alan Dickar documented the intense flames consuming the main thoroughfare before evacuating with his companions and two feline companions. Despite the profound loss he experienced, he remained resolute, asserting, “Every significant thing I owned burned down today… I’ll be OK. I got out safely.” His resilience and gratitude for his safety in the face of adversity were evident in his words.
Simultaneously, wildfires had erupted on Hawaii’s Big Island, as reported by Mayor Mitch Roth. Fortunately, no injuries or homes destroyed had been reported in that area. Mayor Roth disclosed that firefighting efforts on the Big Island involved tackling roof fires and addressing ongoing flareups, particularly in the vicinity of Mauna Kea Resorts. The coordinated response of firefighting teams remained crucial in containing and mitigating the impact of these additional blazes.
The National Weather Service pointed to Hurricane Dora, located to the south of the Hawaiian islands, as a contributing factor to the forceful winds that fanned the wildfires.
In the aftermath of the disaster, approximately 14,500 residents in Maui found themselves without electricity in the early hours of Wednesday. The disruption extended beyond power, with cell service and phone lines rendered unusable in certain areas, creating a challenging situation for many individuals attempting to establish contact with friends and family residing in the vicinity of the wildfires. Some resorted to utilizing social media platforms to share messages and updates.
Among those grappling with this communication breakdown was Tiare Lawrence, who anxiously sought to connect with her siblings residing near the site of a gas station explosion in Lahaina. The volatile circumstances underscored the urgency and significance of effective communication during times of crisis.
Stranded without any means of communication, Tiare Lawrence expressed her frustration from Pukalani in Maui, where the lack of service hindered efforts to connect with others.
Acting Governor Sylvia Luke conveyed the dire situation that had unfolded, emphasizing the devastating impact on communities. She issued a strong appeal to travelers, urging them to avoid the area, emphasizing, “This is not a safe place to be.”
In response to the crisis, Acting Gov. Luke took decisive action by issuing an emergency proclamation on behalf of Governor Josh Green, who was away on travel. Green promptly cut short his trip and was slated to return Wednesday evening, signaling the gravity of the situation.
Unlike the wildfires seen in many parts of the U.S. West, Hawaii’s fires typically ignite in expansive grasslands on the arid sides of the islands, and they usually remain considerably smaller than those on the mainland. However, the 2021 major fire on the Big Island stands as an exception, leading to home destruction and mass evacuations.
Iiulia Yasso, who had fled her home with her boyfriend Kamuela Kawaakoa, articulated the profound impact the disaster had on the community. She emphasized the need for time to rebuild and urged people not to plan visits to the area at this time. Reflecting on the collective loss, Yasso poignantly stated, “It’s everybody losing their memories of growing up… It’s the memories for everybody. We all lost our homes with this.” Her words encapsulated the shared grief and sentiment of the affected community.