The fast-moving firestorm that reduced the vacation town of Lahaina to smoldering ashes saw 53 people killed on Maui on Thursday, according to officials.
At least three large fires that started Tuesday night blocked off the western portion of the island and the historic city of Lahaina, where more than 270 structures were burnt or damaged, taking the island, which is a part of the U.S. state of Hawaii, completely by surprise.
Burns, smoke inhalation, and other injuries were sustained by many more persons. Thousands of people have evacuated into emergency shelters or abandoned the island as search and rescue operations continue.
Most locals and visitors to Lahaina were caught off guard by the wildfires, and several were forced to leap into the water to flee the rapidly spreading blaze. Many of the tourists camped out outside the airport while waiting for planes as thousands of visitors attempted to leave Maui.
A visitor from Fresno, California named Vixay Phonxaylinkham claimed he was caught on Front Street in Lahaina in a rented car with his wife and children as the fires approached, causing the family to get out of the vehicle and jump into the Pacific Ocean.
“We floated around four hours,” Phonxaylinkham said from the airport while awaiting a flight off the island, describing how they held onto pieces of wood for floatation.
“It was a vacation that turned into a nightmare. I heard explosions everywhere, I heard screaming, and some people didn’t make it. I feel so sad,” he said.
In a statement that also stated that the Lahaina fire was 80% contained, Maui County stated that the death toll had increased by 17 and now stood at 53. This was done after firefighters secured the perimeter of the burned wilderness regions.
About 20 miles (30 km) east of Lahaina, the Pulehu fire was 70% contained. According to Maui County, there was no estimate for the Upcountry fire, which is located in the island’s eastern mass.
On the western part of the island, the Lahaina fire burned entire neighborhoods to the ground. One of Maui’s top tourist destinations, Lahaina draws 2 million visitors annually, or about 80% of the island’s visitors.
Tourists and locals alike fled with few or none of their belongings as the fire spread rapidly due to dry conditions, a buildup of fuels and strong winds.
“It was so hot all around me, I felt like my shirt was about to catch on fire,” said Nicoangelo Knickerbocker, a 21-year-old resident of Lahaina, said from one of the four emergency shelters opened on the island.
Knickerbocker and his father quickly left the town after hearing the explosion of automobiles and a gas station, taking just their current clothing and the family dog.
He remarked, “It sounded like a war was going on.
Dr. Gerald Tariao Montano, a doctor who volunteered to serve a six-hour shift on Wednesday night, claimed that the majority of the approximately 400 refugees who arrived at the War Memorial shelter on Thursday morning were in shock and had a “empty look.”
He begged for donations of clothing, supplies, food, infant formula, and diapers, saying that some people “haven’t fully realized that they lost everything.”
The fires were the greatest tragedy to hit Hawaii since the tsunami that killed 61 people in 1960, the year it became a U.S. state.
The fate of some of Lahaina’s cultural treasures remains unclear. The historic 60-foot(18-meter)-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood was still standing, though some of its boughs appeared charred, according to a Reuters witness.
“We will need to rebuild the entirety of Lahaina, I believe,” Governor Green told KHON 2 television.
With the approval of a disaster declaration for Hawaii by US President Joe Biden, impacted people and business owners are now eligible to apply for government housing and economic rehabilitation grants.
The National Weather Service said that dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity ignited the Maui wildfires, however the exact cause of the fires has not yet been identified, according to officials.
According to Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, wildfires happen in Hawaii every year, but this year’s fires are bigger and burning more quickly than typical.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, there were at least two significant brush fires.
This summer, scenes of flaming destruction have become all too often in other parts of the world. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated due to wildfires in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other regions of Europe, often brought on by heat records. A series of particularly intense fires in western Canada polluted the air by spreading clouds of smoke over large areas of the United States.
According to scientists, human-caused climate change, which is being fueled by the use of fossil fuels, is making these extreme weather events more frequent and intense. Scientists have long warned that governments must reduce emissions in order to avoid a global climate catastrophe.