MAUI, Hawaii − Wind-whipped wildfires in Hawaii forced hundreds of evacuations Wednesday, overwhelmed hospitals, and even sent some residents fleeing into the ocean to escape the flames as parts of the popular tourist destination turned into a raging inferno in a matter of hours.
Six people have died in the wildfires, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said at a news conference Wednesday. At least two dozen have been injured and 271 structures were damaged or destroyed.
Entire blocks of homes and businesses went up in smoke in historic Lahaina Town in Maui, where blazes fueled by wind from a passing hurricane were concentrated. In addition, three wildfires were burning on the Big Island, though two of them were at least 60% contained.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said residents had been preparing for Hurricane Dora, which skirted south of the islands and had no reason to expect the quickly developing blazes.
“We expect rain, sometimes we expect floods,” she said. “We never anticipated on this date that a hurricane which did not make an impact on our islands would cause these types of wildfires.”
President Joe Biden said in a statement he has ordered “all available Federal assets” to help combat the wildfires, including Black Hawk helicopters provided by the Marines.
County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin told USA TODAY the fires are affecting two areas of the island: Lahaina, a residential and tourist area with a commercial district in West Maui, and Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous upcountry region.
Officials said 2,000 travelers sheltered at Maui’s Kahului Airport, and another 4,000 visitors wanted to leave the island. The Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu was being prepared to accommodate up to 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires.
Locals and visitors scrambled to get information and reach loved ones amid power blackouts and downed cellular and 911 service as well as phone lines in different parts of the islands.
Tiare Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, was trying to get in touch with her siblings while providing refuge at her home for 14 cousins and uncles who fled the heat, smoke, and flames in Lahaina.
“It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” she said.
Maui county officials said multiple structures have burned and multiple evacuation orders are in place as emergency crews battle brush and structure fires. “It’s been an unprecedented incident striking large areas of our island, and it has been pretty much all hands on deck,” Martin said.
Tourists turn around and leave right after arriving
The sky over west Maui is hazy with smoke from the devastating wildfires still burning on the island, which continue to displace thousands.
On Wednesday afternoon, traffic was at a complete standstill on Honoapiilani Highway, the main road to access Lahaina, as it remains closed. Cars packed with people are parked along the side of the road waiting to return to their hotels or homes, but no time or date has been given yet.
On Tuesday night, more than 4,000 people − including residents and tourists from two hotels − evacuated to emergency shelters set up by the American Red Cross. On Wednesday, the organization said it was flying in additional volunteers and staff from the mainland to assist with the aftermath of the fires and get people safely to Oahu. Tourists arriving at Kahului Airport are turning around and trying to leave Maui. Alexis and Hector Palomar had their trip planned since May and landed on Wednesday morning.
“We didn’t realize it was happening until we were on our way to the airport. We didn’t think it was that bad until we got here,” Hector Palomar said.
They immediately changed plans and booked a flight to Kauai, departing just three hours after they arrived on Maui.“Thankfully we’re able to get out,” he said. “I just don’t want to take resources from the locals since it’s an island.”
− Kathleen Wong
Lahaina resident Jordan Saribay knew how fortunate he and his family were to escape the flames around them alive, having merely lost items that could be replaced.
Saribay had seen homes burst into flames “as tall as the buildings because they were engulfing them,’’ debris turns into dangerous projectiles as people whose cars had run out of gas tried to flee while carrying their prized possessions.
“Everything is gone, every single one of our family homes,’’ Saribay said. “The entire Lahaina Town and the entire subdivision of Lahaina – gone.’’
And much faster than anyone could have imagined. In a few hours, the wind-driven blaze tore through popular Front Street and decimated a town center that traced its roots to the 1700s and was on the National Register of Historic Places.
Getting out of the danger zone made for a surreal journey of trying to find an unclogged escape route amid blistering heat that caused another car to explode, injuring a woman inside it.
“While driving through the neighborhood, it looked like a war zone,’’ Saribay said. “Houses throughout that neighborhood were already on fire. I’m driving through the thickest black smoke, and I don’t know what’s on the other side or what’s in front of me.’’
When he made it out, Saribay felt a pang of emotion seeing Lahaina in his rear-view mirror, wondering what would be left to go back to. “Just praying that a miracle happens,’’ he said.
− Ashley Lewis
Governor has contacted White House, says ‘loss of life is expected
Gov. Josh Green said in a statement Wednesday that he expects to request a Presidential Disaster Declaration from the White House in the next 36 to 48 hours once officials have a better understanding of the scope of the damage.
Green was planning to be out of state for personal travel until next week but is expected to return Wednesday night to address the crisis. He said while the “heroic efforts” of first responders have prevented many causalities, “some loss of life is expected.”
“Our state appreciates the incredible outpouring of concern and prayers from the mainland. We won’t forget the aloha you have already begun to share with us,” Green said.
Lifelong Maui resident had ‘never seen anything like this
Kyle Ellison, born and raised in Maui, returned to his Kula home Wednesday morning and started stomping out flames on the property.
The previous morning, he heard trees fall into the gulch behind his house and, when a popping sound went off, he figured it was coming from an electrical transformer.
“A minute later, I ask my wife if the internet is out and if she can smell smoke,” Ellison said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this. I have friends in Lahaina who have lost everything.”
Ellison and his family made it out with one truck full of belongings. Their house is still standing but their neighbors’ is not. His wife and children went to the houses of three different friends to stay the night but kept having to move as evacuations spread.
“I think there are going to be a lot of people hurting,” he said. “We already have a housing crisis out here and we lost so many more homes.”
− Kathleen Wong
Luke and Bissen have issued emergency proclamations in response to the fire. The Hawaii National Guard has been activated and is assisting the Maui Police Department at traffic control points, according to the Hawaii adjutant general.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing 500 miles south of the island chain, and a very strong high pressure north of the state produced powerful, damaging winds through the overnight hours.
“Very dry fuels combined with strong and gusty easterly winds and low humidities will produce critical fire weather conditions through the afternoon hours,” the weather service said in a red flag warning for leeward areas issued Wednesday.
‘Chaos’ trying to find shelter as people left with few possessions
People in Lahaina described frantically trying to get to relative safety in one of the nearby emergency shelters. But they weren’t told by anyone where to go – just that they had to leave.
Throughout the night, people were driving aimlessly and following other cars, just trying to head north, as police and firefighters dealt with growing flames.
The War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku opened to evacuees this morning. There is no capacity limit to how many people can stay there. The community has set up cots and is giving away clothing, food, and pillows to evacuees. A medical team is checking for burns and smoke inhalation, and to aid anyone with existing conditions without access to medication.
Mauro Farinelli and his wife Judit arrived at the shelter around noon. They have lived right on Front Street in Lahaina for four years and described their evacuation as “chaos.”
“No one told us we had to leave, it was getting bad and we had to leave with the clothes on our back,” he said. The couple went to the boat ramp where they were told they could jump into the ocean “if things got bad.” Farinelli said he can’t return home until the electric wires are assessed in Lahaina.
“Nobody thinks it can happen to them,” he said. “Where I lived, it was like there’s no way a fire can get here because I’m not close to vegetation but the wind was so strong, it was like a blow torch.”
− Kathleen Wong
While it’s still difficult to assess the damage, state Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran cited various landmarks that have reportedly been lost – historic businesses and buildings, temples and cemeteries where royal figures were buried.
“It’s a real loss. Hawaii and Maui have tried hard to preserve and protect those places for many, many years … not for the sake of tourism but because it’s part of our cultural heritage,” said Keith-Agaran, whose district includes Kahului in central Maui. Lahaina, where the largest fires are concentrated, was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom.
“We just lost a large part of our heritage,” he said.
Brush and wildfires are not unheard of in Hawaii’s leeward regions during the dry season. In 2018, Maui suffered a massive brush fire on the same side of the island, primarily on the slopes. “This is so much worse,” Keith-Agaran said, pointing to the scope of the current blaze.
“No matter how much you prepare, you’re not going to be ready for something that moves as quickly and as big as this,” he said. “I don’t think we had enough equipment or people to be fighting fires upcountry, small fires in central Maui, and then this huge fire on the west side.”
− Alia Wong
Six patients were flown from Maui to the island of Oahu on Tuesday night, said Speedy Bailey, regional director for the air-ambulance company Hawaii Life Flight. Three of them had critical burns and were taken to Straub Medical Center’s burn unit in Honolulu, he said. The others were taken to other Honolulu hospitals. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, said Bailey, who was not aware of any deaths.
Luke told CNN Maui’s hospitals are overwhelmed with burn patients and people suffering from smoke inhalation and it’s been difficult to transport people needing care to other facilities.
“We are already in communication with other hospital systems about relieving the burden – the reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support because Maui Hospital cannot do extensive burn treatment,” Luke said. “In addition to dealing with disaster, we’re dealing with major transportation issues as well.”
A resident of a nearby island searching for family in Maui
Leomana Turalde’s mother called him on the phone crying Wednesday morning, saying she never went to sleep on Tuesday night in Maui amid the massive fires.
Turalde said he has several “aunties” who live on Maui, two blocks away from Lahaina’s popular Front Street. Wednesday morning, one of the women went missing, he told USA TODAY. It is impossible to get in touch with some people because cellphone infrastructure on Maui burned down, he said.
“Lahaina Town is now burnt down to ashes,” said Turalde, 36, who runs a sunscreen company. “Most of the families on Maui, if you never made contact with your family before sunset last night, you’re still trying to figure out where they are.”
He said he is boarding a plane on Wednesday to Maui from where he lives on the island of Hawaii to help family members search for missing relatives near their homestead property, which he said burned down.
“I’m going to go to the first place that everybody would go to when they’re in trouble, and that’s the house, even though the house isn’t there,” he said. “Home is usually the first place you should start if people are missing.”
− Claire Thornton
All roads to historic Lahaina are closed as Front Street burns
All roads into Lahaina, a town of roughly 13,000, and West Maui have been closed to public use, except for emergency services, county officials said Wednesday. Photos shared by the county overnight showed a line of flames blazing across an intersection in Lahaina and flames leaping above buildings in the town, whose historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Do NOT go to Lahaina town,” officials warned.
Green said much of the area “has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced.”
Front Street business owner Alan Dickar told CBS News buildings on both sides of the street in the popular tourist area were engulfed in flames. Dickar said it appeared the fire department was overwhelmed.
“Maui can’t handle this,” Dickar said. “A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes. … This is going to be devastating for Maui.”
Lahaina’s historic Waiola Church and the neighboring Lahaina Hongwanji Mission temple were among the structures that caught fire Wednesday, the Maui News reported. The church was established in 1823, and its graveyard, believed to be the first Christian cemetery in Hawaii, is the final resting place for early members of the royal family of the Kingdom of Hawaii, according to its website.
Uncertainty for many residents
Beatrice Hoopai drove for hours in the middle of the night trying to find shelter before ending up at the Warm Memorial Gymnasium. She, her husband, disabled son, and two infants were living at Ka Hale A Ke Ola (KHAKO), which is low-income housing, in Lahaina waiting to be told to evacuate as the fires were approaching. A friend told Hoopai a nearby transformer caught on fire and to leave as soon as possible.
“We packed up what we could and left,” she said. “KHAKO didn’t turn on their evacuation, we didn’t know we were going to be evacuated. Nobody told us nothing.”
The family got in Hoopai’s car and started driving but kept going around in circles as the roads were closed. Branches were catching on fire and tin roofs blew past the car, she said. “You could see black smoke, the flames, everything was falling,” she said. “If you looked back in the mirror, everything was burning.” The ocean was black and eerie.
Hoopai has lived in Maui for her entire life and just moved to Lahaina in May. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this.” Tourists, she said, can lose their luggage but still return to their homes. But residents lose their homes.
She’s worried about what’s next now that the shelter is gone but she’s thankful for her family’s safety.
“You can lose everything but you cannot replace a life,” she said.
− Kathleen Wong
Track the latest wildfire and red flag warnings here with data that is updated based on input from several incident and intelligence sources.https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/usat/sf-q1a2z323ad14e2.min.html
Nearly 2,000 people were stuck at Maui airport
Martin said the Kahului Airport in Maui has more than 2,000 visitors who have either canceled flights or had nowhere to go. The Hawaii Department of Transportation said Wednesday that about 1,800 people sheltered in place overnight in the airport with many highways on the island’s west side still closed.
“HDOT worked with airlines/TSA to shelter passengers for safety’s sake as wildfires continue to burn in Lahaina and upcountry,” officials said on X, formerly Twitter.
Nearly 100 firefighters have been on duty, including 11 from state airport rescue personnel, county officials said.
Ten public schools in Maui were closed Wednesday, including one that is being used as an evacuation shelter, according to the Hawaii Department of Education.
Student boarders at Lahainaluna High School were moved Tuesday evening to Maui High School, which was being used as a shelter for evacuees to be picked up by family members or emergency contacts, officials said. The Lahainaluna campus remained closed Wednesday because of a lack of power, wind damage, and brush fire evacuations.
As the brush fire spread to Kihei, officials announced Tuesday that four public schools in South Maui would be closed in addition to schools in West, Upcountry, and Central Maui.
The Coast Guard has been responding to areas where residents are “entering the ocean due to smoke and fire conditions,” county officials said. A Coast Guard boat rescued 12 people from the waters off Lahaina, officials said on X, formerly Twitter.
Lawrence told Hawaii News Now people were running for their lives. She said the homes of everyone she knows in Lahaina have been down.
“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.
In Kula, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1,100 acres, Bissen told The Associated Press. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
The Red Cross has opened several emergency shelters for residents. Martin said one evacuation center alone had more than 1,200 people.
“I am certain they are very anxious at our evacuation centers,” she said.
The resident could tell something was brewing
Alice Carillo lives about five miles from the fire that erupted in Kula, in a hilly, bucolic region of Maui known as upcountry.
The 79-year-old woke up in the middle of the night Tuesday to the smell of something burning. She opened the door of her Makawao plantation home, where she’s lived for more than half a century, and “it was like fog out there, so covered with smoke.” She could see a fire above the Kula shopping center.
10 schools closed, including one converted to an evacuation shelter
Conditions had been especially windy in the days leading up to the blaze, in part because of Hurricane Dora moving south of the island. Carillo could sense something was brewing as the gusts picked up. Now, as she looks out at the mountain, the sky is clear.
“You wouldn’t have even known there was a fire,” she said.
− Alia Wong
Wildfire smoke map: See where fires are burning in Hawaii and across the US
More than 14,000 customers in Maui County were without power, according to Poweroutage.us. County officials advised residents to stay at least 30 feet from downed power lines, which at one point restricted travel along parts of Honoapiilani Highway. Part of the highway was reopened Tuesday evening to allow access in and out of Lahaina, but motorists were told to expect traffic to move slowly through the bypass.
In West Maui, 911 service is no longer available. Martin said it’s been “very difficult” to manage evacuation orders in Lahaina because the area does not have cell service and only landlines are functioning.
The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also was dealing with power outages, downed power lines, and traffic problems, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
In Kula, winds were recorded at 80 mph, “which greatly affected the speed and the movement of the fire,” Martin said.
Because of the wind gusts, helicopters weren’t able to dump water on the fires from the sky – or gauge more precise fire sizes – and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin previously told the Associated Press.
Maui fire officials warned that erratic wind, challenging terrain, steep slopes and dropping humidity combined with the direction and the location of the fire have made it difficult to predict its path and speed. The wind can also send fire embers up and ignite sparks downwind, creating fires far from their source, officials said.
“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” said Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea. “Burning airborne materials can light fires a great distance away from the main body of fire.”
Hawaii County officials said Tuesday that they were monitoring two brush fires burning in North and South Kohala. The fires prompted evacuations and power outages in the area.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday approved the state’s request for a disaster declaration to assist with “the wind-whipped Kohala Ranch wildfire on the Big Island,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The fire, which began early Tuesday, threatened about 200 homes near the rural community of Kohala Ranch, a volunteer fire department, local electrical transmission lines, and an AT&T cellular communications tower in the area, officials said The fire was uncontained and had burned more than 600 acres of land when the request for federal assistance was made.
The release said firefighters battling that fire and the two other uncontrolled fires on the Big Island and Maui “have been hampered by the winds, which made it impossible to provide aircraft support for their efforts to contain the flames.”
“We’re trying to protect homes in the community,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of evacuating about 400 homes in four communities in the northern part of the island. As of Tuesday, the roof of one house caught on fire, he said.