Authorities stated that wind-driven wildfires on Maui, a Hawaiian island, led people to evacuate as flames and smoke drove them to jump into the ocean for safety. The Coast Guard informed CBS News that in Lahaina, a dozen individuals sought refuge in the water on Tuesday and were subsequently rescued.
Lahaina experienced extensive fires, prompting Maui County to tweet about numerous road closures along with a cautionary message: “Avoid traveling to Lahaina town.”
Due to the evacuation efforts, traffic congestion has been significant. Officials urged those outside the evacuation zones to remain in their current locations to prevent further traffic buildup, as stated by Mahina Martin, a spokesperson for the County of Maui, in an early Wednesday phone interview with the Associated Press.
The flames severely impacted Front Street, a tourist-frequented area within the town.
“Structures on both sides were consumed,” remarked Alan Dickar, a business owner on Front Street, during an interview with CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV. Fire trucks were not there at the time, and it appeared that the fire department was overburdened, he continued.
Speaking to CBS News’ Patrick Torphy, he conveyed, “Maui is ill-equipped to manage this situation. … Many individuals have lost their employment due to the destruction of numerous businesses. Numerous individuals have been displaced from their residences. … The repercussions for Maui are bound to be catastrophic.”
The wildfire in Lahaina was just one of several blazes across Hawaii, driven by powerful winds. These fires consumed numerous buildings, necessitated evacuations, and triggered power failures in multiple neighborhoods. Firefighters faced challenges accessing certain regions due to fallen trees and power lines. Several individuals encountered difficulties evacuating due to traffic congestion, smoke, and advancing flames.
According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Dora, situated around 500 miles south of the island chain, played a role in producing gusts exceeding 60 mph. These strong winds, compounded by Hurricane Dora, caused power outages, unsettled homes, and prevented firefighting helicopters from operating. The weather service also warned that the combination of strong winds and low humidity would sustain hazardous fire conditions until Wednesday afternoon.
As of early Wednesday morning, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center classified Hurricane Dora as a Category 4 hurricane.
Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Governor Josh Green, who is currently away, and also deployed the Hawaii National Guard.
Officials reported no fatalities and were aware of only one injury: a firefighter in stable condition at a hospital due to smoke inhalation, according to Martin. The extent of structures impacted by the fires and the number of individuals affected by evacuations is unknown. However, Martin mentioned the operation of four shelters, accommodating over 1,000 individuals at the largest shelter.
A honeymooner from Lahaina posted an unusual request on social media:
Martin stated, “This situation is truly unprecedented,” highlighting the impact across several districts. She expressed the fear associated with an unexpected emergency occurring at night and emphasized that the darkness complicates the assessment of the damage’s scale.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted approval for a disaster declaration, aimed at offering aid for a fire that menaced approximately 200 residences in and around Kohala Ranch. This rural community, situated on the Big Island, holds a population of over 500, as reported by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
At the time of the request, the fire had already consumed over 600 acres and remained uncontrolled. A significant portion of Hawaii was subject to a red flag warning that persisted through Wednesday. Additionally, authorities noted the presence of two other uncontained fires on both the Big Island and Maui.
On Maui, firefighting teams were actively engaged in combating several fires, primarily centered in two locations: the well-visited West Maui tourist area and an inland, mountainous region. Within West Maui, the 911 service was inaccessible, prompting residents to contact the police department for assistance.
Due to the strong wind gusts, helicopters were unable to deploy water onto the fires from the air, hindering their ability to assess fire sizes accurately.
Firefighters faced challenges while dealing with the inland fires, as fallen trees and power lines blocked their path on the roads, as mentioned by Martin.
As of early Wednesday, around 14,000 customers in Hawaii were experiencing power outages, as reported by PowerOutage.us.
Given the numerous fires and evacuations occurring around various district areas, Martin declared that today was one of the most difficult days for our island.
Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea mentioned, “The fire might be a mile or even farther from your residence, but within a couple of minutes, it could reach your home.”
For firemen, the already difficult season was made worse by Hurricane Dora.
According to meteorologist Jeff Powell in Honolulu, Hawaii is sandwiched between two systems of pressure: one with high pressure to the north and the other with low pressure associated with Hurricane Dora. He explained that the dryness coupled with the strong gusts creates a hazardous fire environment, causing existing fires to spread rapidly out of control.
The fires are considered a “peripheral result” of Hurricane Dora’s winds, according to Powell. In the Kula area of Maui, an estimated 1,100 acres were engulfed by a fire, destroying at least two homes and prompting the evacuation of around 80 individuals from 40 residences.
Caroline Lebrec, a resident in Upcountry Maui, described her evacuation experience as she saw flames advancing towards her while heading to an emergency shelter. The state Education Department announced the closure of all public schools in Maui except for one. The Red Cross opened shelters on Maui and the Big Island.
Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth emphasized the evacuation of about 400 homes in four communities, stating they were focused on safeguarding the local community.
Unlike many wildfires in the U.S. West, Hawaiian fires tend to erupt in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are typically smaller in scale. These fires pose significant environmental risks, including vegetation loss and soil erosion that can impact coral reefs.
A significant fire occurred on the Big Island in 2021, leading to home destruction and mass evacuations. Oahu, where Honolulu is located, grappled with power disruptions, fallen power lines, and traffic issues.
The weather service issued high wind and red flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions, but these conditions were projected to improve gradually throughout Wednesday and into Thursday