An aerial view shows what remains of buildings in the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, after fast-moving wildfires moved through, killing six people on the island. Photo by Carter Barto/EPA-EFE
Aug. 9 (UPI) — Devastating wildfires burning on Maui’s west side and on the Big Island of Hawaii have killed six people, as officials warn the death toll could rise.
Hundreds of families have been displaced as evacuations of residents and tourists from the beach resort island continue. The fast-moving flames were fanned Wednesday by Hurricane Dora’s high winds, reaching up to 80 miles per hour, amid the islands’ drought conditions.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora has passed well south of the Hawaiian islands and the hurricane’s strong winds are expected to ease over the next 24 hours. While decreasing winds could help firefighters, none of the fires on Maui have been contained.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, two new brushfires erupted Wednesday.
“Mauna Kea Beach and lower Kohala Ranch areas remain under blaze. Safety measures are in place,” Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said.
President Joe Biden expressed his condolences Wednesday evening and ordered all available federal assets on the islands to help with the response.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones in the wildfires in Maui, and our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses and communities destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.
“The Hawaiian National Guard has mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue on the Island of Maui. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Third Fleets are supporting response and rescue efforts. The Army is providing Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fires on the Big Island,” Biden added.
The Department of Transportation is also working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from the islands.
During a press briefing Wednesday, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. confirmed the six deaths and warned the number of those killed in the fires is expected to go up.
“I’m sad to report that just before coming on this, it was confirmed we’ve had six fatalities,” Bissen told reporters. “We are still in a search and rescue mode.”
Much of the historic town of Lahaina has burned, as some residents and tourists were forced to escape the flames by going into the ocean, prompting numerous water rescues.
“We’ve had many dwellings — business, structures — that have been burned, many of them to the ground,” Bissen added.
More than 2,100 people were being housed in four emergency shelters in Maui, according to the mayor’s office.
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation Wednesday while urging tourists not to travel to Maui. There is no 911 service on Maui’s west side, where most of the island’s beach resorts are located.
“Today, we signed another emergency proclamation, which will discourage tourists from going to Maui,” Luke said. “Even as of this morning, planes were landing on Maui with tourists. This is not a safe place to be.”
The proclamation activates the National Guard, among other actions.
Luke is acting as governor while Gov. Josh Green is out of state until Aug. 15. Earlier Wednesday, Green said he would cut his trip short and was in the process of traveling back to Hawaii.
“We have suffered a terrible disaster in the form of a wildfire that has spread widely as a result of hurricane-force winds in the region and underlying drought conditions,” Green said in a statement Wednesday.
“Maui and the Big Island both experienced significant fires. Much of Lahaina on Maui has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced.”
Green added that he has been in touch with the White House and that Hawaii will be submitting a request for a Presidential Disaster Declaration.
“Our state appreciates the incredible outpouring of concern and prayers from the world. We won’t forget the aloha you have already begun to share with us.”
The Kahului Airport in Maui is sheltering about 1,800 people who have had flights canceled and delayed, according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
“HDOT worked with airlines/TSA to shelter passengers for safety’s sake as wildfires continue to burn in Lahaina and upcountry,” the HDOT tweeted Wednesday.
As authorities discourage non-essential travel, United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have waived fees for ticket changes.
As of Wednesday, all schools on the island of Maui, with one exception, were closed due to the fires. The American Red Cross is managing a shelter in Pukalani and asking people to bring their own food and bedding.
Hawaiian Electric said in a statement that some 12,400 customers in West Maui were in the dark Tuesday night as crews worked to repair about 30 downed utility poles and multiple spans of power lines. Hawaiian Electric warned customers Wednesday to plan for extended outages.
Dora was located about 700 miles south-southwest of Honolulu, and moving west at 23 mph with sustained winds of 130 mph, according to an 11 a.m. HST update from the National Hurricane Center. The latest forecast from the Central-Pacific Hurricane Center predicts Dora could last into early next week.
“Several wildfires are burning across parts of Hawaii, fueled in part by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote earlier Wednesday in a post on X, which showed a satellite view of the islands being battered by strong winds.
Several #wildfires are burning across parts of Hawaii this week, fueled in part by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south. @NOAA’s GOESWest was tracking the hotspots and smoke from the fires as they burned across parts of Maui and the Big Island yesterday evening…. pic.twitter.com/WzApS2ddTi— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) August 9, 2023
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