The death toll from wildfires in Hawaii rises to 53 and is likely to rise further, the governor said. says

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Wreckage from a wildfire is sighted in Lahaina, Hawaii on Wednesday, August 9, 2023.

Wreckage from a wildfire is sighted in Lahaina, Hawaii on Wednesday, August 9, 2023. Tiffany Kidder Winn via AP

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — A search of wildfire devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday unearthed a wasteland of destroyed neighborhoods and landmarks charred beyond recognition, while the death toll rose to at least 53 and survivors told harrowing tales of narrow escapes with only the clothes on the back.

A flyover over historic Lahaina revealed entire neighborhoods that had once been a vivid vision of color and island life reduced to gray ash. Block after block was reduced to rubble and blackened foundations, including along the famous Front Street where tourists used to shop and eat just a few days ago. Boats in the harbor were burned and smoke hung over the town, which dates back to the 18th century and is the largest community on the western side of the island.

“Lahaina was burned down with a few exceptions”, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said The Associated Press. More than 1,000 buildings were destroyed by fires that were still burning, he said.

The death toll from the wildfires is likely to rise as search and rescue operations continue, Green added, and officials expect it to be the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1961 tsunami that killed 61 people people died on the Big Island.

“We’re heartbreaking,” Green said.

Tiffany Kidder Winn’s Whaler’s Locker gift shop, one of the city’s oldest stores, was among the many stores destroyed by wildfires. Assessing the damage on Thursday, she found a number of burned-out vehicles containing partially charred bodies.

“It looked like they wanted to get out, but they were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get off Front Street,” she said. She later discovered a body leaning against a seawall.

Winn said the destruction was so great that “I couldn’t even tell where I was because all the landmarks were gone.”

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire erupted Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched growth that blanketed the island and then chomping down on homes and anything in its path.

Thursday’s official death toll of 53 makes this the deadliest wildfire in the United States since California’s Camp Fire in 2018, which killed at least 85 and devastated the town of Paradise. However, according to a Maui County press release, Hawaii’s death toll could rise if rescue workers reach parts of the island that have been inaccessible due to the three ongoing fires, including that in Lahaina, which was 80% contained Thursday. More than 270 buildings were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people were injured, some critically.

“We’re still on life support. Search and rescue is still a top concern,” said Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Search and rescue teams will continue to be unable to access certain areas until fire lines are secured and they are confident they can safely reach those areas, Weintraub added.

The blazes left some people with just minutes to act and prompted some to flee to sea. A Lahaina man, Bosco Bae, posted a video to Facebook Tuesday night showing nearly every building on a street ablaze as sirens wail and windblown sparks sweep by. Bae, who said he was one of the last people to leave town, was evacuated to the island’s main airport and awaited a return home.

Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old chef from Guatemala who arrived in the United States in January 2022, said by the time he heard the fire alarm it was too late to flee in his car.

“I opened the door and the fire was almost over us,” he told the Associated Press Thursday from a gym evacuation center. “We ran and ran. We walked most of the night and into the next day because the fire wouldn’t stop.”

Vasquez and his brother Eduardo fled through streets clogged with vehicles full of people. The smoke was so toxic that he vomited. He said he wasn’t sure his roommates and neighbors made it to safety.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described their harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies. The couple and their 6-year-old son were returning to their apartment after a quick run to the supermarket for water, only having time to grab a change of clothes and run when bushes around them caught fire.

“We barely made it,” said Kawaakoa, 34, at an emergency shelter, still unsure if anything was left of her apartment.

As the family fled, she called 911 when she saw the Hale Mahaolu retirement home across the street burst into flames.

Chelsey Vierra’s grandmother, Louise Abihai, lived in Hale Mahaolu and the family don’t know if she got out. “She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,” Vierra said on Thursday. “She can walk. She is strong.”

Relatives monitor lists of shelters and call the hospital. “We need to find our loved one, but there is no communication here,” said Vierra, who fled the flames. “We don’t know who to ask where she went.”

Communications on the island were patchy, with 911, landline, and cellphone services all going out intermittently. There was also a power outage in parts of Maui.

Tourists have been advised to stay away, and about 11,000 departed Maui Wednesday, with at least 1,500 more expected to depart Thursday, according to state transportation director Ed Sniffen. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to receive the thousands of displaced people.

Along the Kihei coast, southeast of Lahaina, vast tracts of land glowed red with embers Wednesday night as the flames continued to eat through trees and buildings. Gusty winds blew sparks across a black-and-orange patchwork of charred earth and still-sizzling hot spots.

The wildfires were fueled by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, which was sweeping far to the south. It is the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather conditions around the world this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Hawaii, but the weather over the past few weeks has created the fuel for a wildfire, and once it was ignited, the high winds caused the disaster, said Thomas Smith, associate professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics and political science.

Fires are also currently raging on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there have been no reports of casualties or destroyed homes there.

With communication impaired, many found it difficult to connect with friends and family. Some people posted messages on social media. Maui officials opened a family support center at the Kahului Community Center for people searching for missing people.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara of the Hawaii Department of Defense told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to restore communications, distribute water and possibly increase law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters dropped 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of water on the fires.

The Coast Guard said they rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape the flames and smoke.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said Wednesday that officials have not yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires.

President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui. Traveling to Utah on Thursday, he vowed the federal response will ensure “anyone who has lost a loved one or whose home has been damaged or destroyed receives immediate assistance.” Biden vowed to streamline requests for help, saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency has an “emergency staffing augmentation” on the island.

The Associated Press’s climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. For more information on AP’s climate initiative, click here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu, Rush from Kahului and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Andrew Selsky of Bend, Oregon; Bobby Caina Calvan and Beatrice Dupuy in New York; and Chris Megerian of Salt Lake City, Utah contributed.

Tom Vazquez

Tom Vazquez is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Tom Vazquez joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Tom Vazquez by emailing

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