A wildfire tore through the heart of Maui on Wednesday with alarming speed and ferocity, destroying homes and businesses in a historic tourist town and forcing panicked residents to jump into the ocean to flee the flames.
Fire was widespread in Lahaina Town, including on Front Street, a popular shopping and dining area, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin said by phone early Wednesday. Traffic has been very heavy as people try to evacuate the area, and officials asked people who weren’t in an evacuation area to shelter in place to avoid adding to the traffic, she said.
Photos posted by the county overnight showed a line of flames blazing across an intersection and leaping above buildings in the town center that dates to the 1700s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Do NOT go to Lahaina Town,” the county tweeted hours before all roads in and out of West Maui’s biggest community were closed to everyone except emergency personnel.
Crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region. In West Maui, 911 service was out and residents were directed to call the police department directly.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters. The strong winds were expected to diminish later Wednesday, but there was little chance of rain to aid firefighters, the weather service said.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday responded to areas where people had fled into the ocean to escape the fire and smoky conditions, the county said in a statement. The Coast Guard tweeted that a crew rescued 12 people from the water off Lahaina.
Burn patients have been flown to the island of Oahu, according to Honolulu Emergency Services Department and Straub Medical Center. Honolulu emergency responders treated and transported one of those patients, a woman in her 60s, was in critical condition in the hospital’s burn unit, department spokesperson Shayne Enright said. Authorities said earlier Wednesday that a firefighter in Maui was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard to assist.
Officials were not aware of any deaths, Martin said. There’s no count available for the number of structures that have burned or the number of people who have evacuated, but Martin said there were four shelters open and that more than 1,000 people were at the largest.
“This is so unprecedented,” Martin said, noting that multiple districts were affected. An emergency in the night is terrifying, she said, and the darkness makes it hard to gauge the extent of the damage.
Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights were canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said.
Alan Dickar said he’s not sure what remains of his Vintage European Posters gallery, which was a fixture on Front Street in Lahaina for 23 years. Before evacuating with three friends and two cats, Dickar recorded video of flames engulfing the main strip of shops and restaurants frequented by tourists.
“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”
Dickar, who assumed the three houses he owns are destroyed, said it will take a heroic effort to rebuild what has burned in Lahaina, which is home to about 13,000 people.
“Everyone who comes to Maui, the one place that everybody goes is Front Street,” he said. “The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left.”
The fires weren’t only burning on Maui.
There have been no reports of injuries or homes lost to three wildfires burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said Wednesday. Firefighters did extinguish a few roof fires. One fire is “pretty much under control,” he said. Another is 60% contained, and the other near Mauna Kea Resorts continues to have flareups.
Because of the wind gusts on Maui, helicopters weren’t able to dump water on the fires or get aerial estimates of the fire sizes, and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin said.
About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.
“It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas,” Martin said.
Tiare Lawrence was frantically trying to reach her siblings Wednesday morning, but there was no phone service. Her home in the Maui community of Pukalani, east of Lahaina, was refuge for 14 cousins and uncles who fled Lahaina. “It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” Lawrence said. “The heat. Smoke and flames everywhere. They had to get my elderly uncle out of the home.”
In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1.7 square miles (4.5 square kilometers), Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth told Hawaii News Now that a few fires were still burning Wednesday on the island, but that there was “minimal damage” to any homes.
Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.
Fires were rare in Hawaii and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.
A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
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.
Lahaina is often thought of just a Maui tourist town, Lawrence said, but “we have a very strong Hawaiian community.”
“I’m just heartbroken. Everywhere, our memories,” she said. “Everyone’s homes. Everyone’s lives have tragically changed in the last 12 hours.”
Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.