Death Toll Increases to 36 as Wildfires Devastate Historic Town of Lahaina in Hawaii

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The hall of historic Waiola church and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames. Photo: Matthew Thayer, Maui News.

At least 36 people have died and 11,000 have been evacuated, as wildfires devastate the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii.

Fanned by winds from a faraway hurricane, multiple neighbourhoods have been burned to the ground and thousands have been evacuated as fast-moving wildfires destroy Lahaina, it’s harbour and surrounding areas.

The death toll has increased to 36, Maui County officials said on Wednesday night local time, adding that it was too early to determine the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

Left: Satellite image 25 July 2023. Right: Satellite image taken 09 August 2023 after devastating wildfires tore through Lahaina and surrounding areas.

Hawaii National Guard members have been activated, and helicopters are searching for those left behind in areas without power and accessible roads. The immediate priority is to save lives, officials said.

Lt. Gov. of Maui County, Sylvia Luke said the historic city of Lahaina has been “decimated” as fires tore through the popular vacation town.

Satellite photographs show an entire community burned to the ground — with blocks of charred remains where hundreds of homes and shops once stood. Luke described the devastation as a “tragic moment for the entire state” and said the recovery will take years.

The wildfire that has brought sheer devastation to Maui is especially heartbreaking for Hawaii because it struck one of its most historic cities and the onetime capital of the former kingdom.

Lahaina holds deep cultural significance for Hawaiians.The city was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha III, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs. His successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845, according to the National Park Service.

The U.S. Coast Guard continue its mass rescue operation, and are seen saving people who had fled into the waters off Lahaina, after they were forced into the sea by fast-approaching flames. Photographs shared by the service showed the blaze burning right up to the waterfront, as flames illuminated the billowing plumes of smoke.

A Lahaina resident told Hawaii News Now, “We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp. It’s like an apocalypse.”

Helicopter pilot Richard Olsten said, “It’s like an area that was bombed. It’s like a war zone.”

Hurricane Dora, which is some 800 miles away, not helping matters, some 911 series and communications in the area have also been cut off.

Maui fire officials noted that it is difficult to predict the path and speed of the fire given the wind, terrain, humidity, direction and location all playing a factor.

“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” said Maui County Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea

“Burning airborne materials can light fires a great distance away from the main body of fire,” he said.

Approximately 14,500 customers are without power in Maui, as of early Wednesday morning.

New arrivals at SOS – Togafuafua and Salelologa branches.

Hawaiian Electricity, the company that provides 95 per cent of Hawaii it’s power, asked customers in West Maui and Upcountry for “patience” as the wildfires rage on.

The company said customers should “plan for extended outages.”

Experts have said that fires are continuing to burn due to a combination of dry vegetation, high winds and low humidity.

Hurricane Dora, which is some 800 miles away, is not helping matters, and some 911 series and communications in the area have also been cut off.