Hawaii faces its 'greatest emergency in decades' from Maui fires, governor says (2023)

Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits in front of an evacuation center at the War Memorial Gymnasium, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Wailuku, Hawaii. The Ah Hees were there because they were looking for her husband's brother. Rick Bowmer/AP hide caption

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Rick Bowmer/AP

Hawaii faces its 'greatest emergency in decades' from Maui fires, governor says (2)

Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits in front of an evacuation center at the War Memorial Gymnasium, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Wailuku, Hawaii. The Ah Hees were there because they were looking for her husband's brother.

Rick Bowmer/AP

Federal help is on the way for the Hawaiian island of Maui, where wildfires have killed at least 53 people, torched thousands of acres, destroyed hundreds of structures and sent scores of residents and visitors fleeing.

Officials say it could take years — or longer — to repair the damage. At a late afternoon news conference, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green warned the death toll will rise.

"We are seeing loss of life," Green said, adding that recovery from the fires poses the "greatest emergency we've seen in decades."

The Picture Show

Satellite images show utter devastation from wildfires in Maui

Green said many hundreds of homes were destroyed and that thousands of people would need to find places to stay. He called on people around the state to take in displaced residents from west Maui if they had the room to accommodate them.

Officials painted a picture of absolute devastation in the historic town of Lahaina. They said that power, water, and internet continued to be down there. When asked for specific numbers on how many structures had been burned, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said: "I'm telling you, none of it's there. It's all burned to the ground."

Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura said there were still active fires, and with the current weather pattern, potential for rapid fire behavior. He said people still needed to stay out of the burn areas because it was still very dangerous, with falling telephone poles and other safety hazards.

Earlier on Thursday, Maui County officials provided more details on the three different active fires in the area: the Lahaina, Pulehu, and Upcountry fires. In Lahaina, they said, the fire was 80% contained as of this morning. The Pulehu fire was 70% contained this morning after overnight crews used heavy equipment to create firebreaks. And the Upcountry fire, officials said, had an undetermined containment percentage.

This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. AP hide caption

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Hawaii faces its 'greatest emergency in decades' from Maui fires, governor says (5)

This graphic shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.


Earlier Thursday, President Biden approved a federal major disaster declaration, making funding available to people, governments and nonprofits affected by the wildfires.

The White House said he also spoke on the phone with Green and expressed "his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property."

Hawaii is also receiving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said. But she cautions that it will take the island, and its people, a long time to recover.

"A lot of individuals will have mental health issues that they're suffering. They have never been in a situation where they just overnight lost the businesses that they invested in," she says. "It's going to take years, sometimes maybe decades, for us to replace some of the infrastructure, including schools and roads."

Officials say some 14,000 residents remain without power as crews work to contain the blazes.

The Picture Show

Photos: 'Whole town went and dissolved into ashes,' Hawaii lieutenant governor says

The historic town of Lahaina — a popular tourist destination and economic hub — has been especially hard-hit. Luke got a glimpse of the destroyed homes and businesses firsthand while taking a Coast Guard flight over the area.

"It just looked like the whole town went ... into ashes," she said. "And we're so heartbroken to see this happen before our eyes."

Luke said internet and cell phone service are down on parts of the island, making it hard for people to check in with their loved ones or call for help.

And while the Big Island and Maui County have shelters, she says they are crowded with evacuees and have also been forced to close down and reopen in new locations to avoid the fire's path.

Government officials and airlines say they are working to help fly passengers off the island. Hawaii's tourism authorities have asked non-essential travelers to leave and reconsider any upcoming trips.

The rare hurricane-wildfire combination

Hurricanes are commonplace this time of year in Hawaii, which is used to heavy rainfall and significant flooding that can follow.

An aerial image taken on August 10, 2023, shows two people walking down Front Street past destroyed buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Hawaii faces its 'greatest emergency in decades' from Maui fires, governor says (8)

An aerial image taken on August 10, 2023, shows two people walking down Front Street past destroyed buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

But officials say fierce winds from Hurricane Dora — which is passing far south of the islands — fanned the fires, making for a rare and deadly combination.

"We have never experienced this type of wildfires as a result of a hurricane," Luke said.

Luke said high temperatures on the island created wildfire conditions to begin with, and the Category 4 hurricane — with maximum sustained winds near 140 miles per hour — triggered brush fires.

Dorman, of Hawaii Public Radio, said the wildfire-hurricane combination is unusual but not unprecedented, having happened on Maui and Oahu in 2018.

"That combination is dangerous because not just the high winds spreading the flames, but those storms dry out the atmosphere, so that it gives the fires more fuel to burn," he explained.

And as climate change drives more extreme weather, Luke worries that what's happening in Lahaina could play out again elsewhere — especially with parts of the country experiencing drought.


The Climate Change Link To More And Bigger Wildfires

"This is something that we need to assess, and how we can better serve our residents," she said. "But the focus still remains right now to contain the fires and provide services for the health and safety of both the residents and visitors on Maui."

Tourists scramble to get home

The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority is discouraging non-essential travel to Maui and asking visitors to leave.

They're getting help from several U.S. airlines, who are waiving change fees and adding flights to ferry travelers off the island.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are adding service, while United Airlines says it canceled Thursday's inbound flights to Maui's Kahului Airport (OGG) and is using those empty planes to pick up travelers who are already there, CNBC reported. Hawaiian Airlines is offering $19 seats on flights out of Maui through the end of the week.


How to prepare for the 2023 hurricane season with climate change in mind

The Hawaii Department of Transportation is started staging mass bus evacuations on Wednesday to help get visitors to the airport. It's urging people to be patient at the airport.

"All airlines are sending additional support to aid in getting people off island. [TSA Pacific] Hawaii leadership will be adding resources to support OGG," it wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Tourism authorities are also urging those with plans to visit Maui in the coming weeks to consider rescheduling.

Maui resident Napua Greig acknowledged that while the wildfires are disrupting many travelers' plans and service might not be what they expected, the community has to prioritize dealing with this tragedy.

"And I just ask everyone who had plans to travel to Maui to to be prayerful and knowing that the people that you're encountering when you come, if you still intend to travel to Maui, the people you're encountering are experiencing great loss, and so be kind and be compassionate," she said.

A community eager to rebuild after loss

While the full extent of the damage is not yet clear, eyewitness accounts and video footage are starting to give a clearer picture.

The historic port town of Lahaina has mostly been destroyed, Dorman said. The popular tourist attraction holds important history: It was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the early 1800s and one of the centers of Hawaii's booming whaling industry. It's also home to wooden buildings and docks.

"Right now that's history that in many cases is burned to the ground and charred," Dorman says.

Greig said many of the iconic places on Lahaina Front Street are gone — including shopping, restaurants, the wharf where boats come in and out for dinner cruises and whale watching, and even parts of the beloved banyan tree in the center of town.

"I've heard that the high school is still intact, but a lot of the homes leading up to the high school have been burnt," she added. "We have not seen a destruction like this on our island, I don't think, ever before."

Utter devastation left by the wildfires in Maui, Hawaï. It is far from hyperbole to say that Lahaina has been wiped off the map.

Credit: Vince Carter pic.twitter.com/dlwxTNY51R

— Nahel Belgherze (@WxNB_) August 9, 2023

Greig and her 80-year-old mother had both evacuated and returned to their homes by the time she spoke with NPR, a process she described as being in a holding pattern as fires broke out all around their area.

"It's an unnerving feeling — you don't want to fall asleep because you never know what's going on, how that fire is going to progress," she said. "And so we're very thankful that our area has been preserved through that."

As crews continue working to extinguish the fires, Greig said many in the community are eager to help but don't yet know what to do.

She's a musician, and said some artists are already working to organize telethons and fundraising concerts. She also ran into who she described as a well-known local chef, who said his industry is starting to organize to help feed and eventually rebuild the community.

Several local nonprofits and lawmakers have started fundraising for recovery efforts, Hawaii Public Radio reported, though officials urge people to verify charities' legitimacy before donating.

Former President Barack Obama, who grew up in Honolulu, wrote on X that "it's tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai'i — a place that's so special to so many of us." He encouraged people to donate to the Hawai'i Community Foundation's "Maui Strong" fund.

Greig says members of the community are also helping on the ground, including as firefighters and EMTs. Her own son is a heavy equipment operator who has been building firebreak walls to try to slow the blazes.

"We have so many of our community out there just doing all they can because Maui is just really one big family," she said. "And so they're really doing all they can to recover everyone and just do the best we can to make sure the least lives are lost in all of this."


Hawaii faces its 'greatest emergency in decades' from Maui fires, governor says? ›

The Maui wildfires are the "largest natural disaster Hawaii has ever experienced," Hawaii Governor Josh Green

Josh Green
Joshua Booth Green (born February 11, 1970) is an American politician and physician serving since 2022 as the ninth governor of Hawaii.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Josh_Green_(politician)
said at a conference late Saturday. "It's been also a natural disaster that's going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from," Green said, addressing members of the press.

What started the Lahaina fire in Maui? ›

Interviews and video evidence reviewed by The New York Times show that the brush fire that wound up wiping out Lahaina ignited under a snapped power line a full nine hours before it roared through town — flaring up in the afternoon after firefighters had declared it contained.

Will Maui recover from fires? ›

Recovery on Maui could take years, officials say, as the death toll rises again. Officials say it could take years — or longer — to repair the damage from this week's wildfires that devastated parts of Maui, claimed dozens of lives and razed a historic town.

What is causing the fires in Hawaii? ›

Hurricane winds and dry weather, however, helped fuel the flames. Drought or abnormally dry conditions across large parts of Hawaii - including the entire island of Maui - also played a role.

How many homes destroyed in Maui? ›

Around 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged because of the fires in western Maui, where Lahaina is located, according to Green. About 86% of the structures were residential, he added.

What started the fires in Maui 2023? ›

What caused the fires? No single cause has been determined, but experts said one possibility was that active power lines that fell in high winds had ignited a wildfire that ultimately consumed Lahaina. Brush fires were already burning on Maui and the island of Hawaii on Aug. 8.

What caused the fire in Maui 2023? ›

Now the footage has emerged as key evidence pointing to fallen utility lines as the possible cause. Hawaiian Electric Co. faces criticism for not shutting off the power amid high wind warnings and keeping it on even as dozens of poles began to topple.

How many people are still missing in Lahaina? ›

Along with the 99 bodies already recovered, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green estimated Monday that about 1,300 people remain unaccounted for. According to 2020 census data, the Lahaina community had a population of about 12,700.

How many are still missing in Maui? ›

Maui continued its grim search Tuesday for around 1,300 still missing from the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century, as officials have only been able to comb through about a quarter of the disaster zone now feared to be a partial graveyard.

How much of Maui is destroyed? ›

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green previously estimated that about 80% of the city was destroyed in the Lahaina fire, the most devastating of three large wildfires that broke out on the island Tuesday, and have torched an estimated 3.39 square miles.

Where did Maui steal fire from? ›

To steal fire from his ancestress, Mahuika, Maui slipped out in the night and extinguished all the cooking fires.

Why is Maui burning? ›

Two weather events conspired to create hazardous conditions on Maui: First, the island has been experiencing a drought, which turned vegetation into fuel. Second, a cyclone passing to the south created sustained high winds, which whipped the fires across the island.

How many people died in the Maui fires? ›

At least 106 people died in the wildfires in Maui, local officials said on Tuesday.

Who owns most of the land in Maui? ›

Who owns Maui? After the State of Hawaii, who owns over 154,000 acres on Maui, Alexander & Baldwin is the second-largest landowner at over 65,000 acres, and the U.S. Government is the third-largest landowner at over 33,000 acres. Check out land and homes for sale on Maui.

Why do people leave Maui? ›

Why are so many people leaving the Aloha State? We think it's mostly because of Hawaii's limited opportunities, brought on by high taxes, excessive regulations, unaffordable housing, exorbitant consumer prices and other factors that make up its back-breaking high cost of living.

Where are most of the homeless in Maui? ›

Broken down by region, Central Maui had the highest number of homeless at 325. There were also 170 sheltered and 155 unsheltered. Total homelessness in Lahaina dropped slightly from 250 people counted in 2022 to 239 counted in January.

When did the Maui fires start? ›

|- The most significant fire of the complex of events began from a brush fire ignited in West Maui near the town of Lahaina on the morning of August 8. During the early morning hours of August 8, significant straight-line winds began to impact the town of Lahaina.

Why does Lahaina noon happen? ›

Lāhainā Noon. Twice a year, in May and July, the Sun passes directly overhead for locations on Earth in the tropics. On these two days, around local noon, the Sun will be exactly overhead, at a 90o angle, and an upright object such as a flagpole will have no shadow.

What time did the fires hit Lahaina? ›

According to a timeline provided by Maui County, a three-acre brush fire was first reported near Lahaina Intermediate School just after 6:30 a.m. local time on the morning of Aug. 8. About two hours later, a little before 9 a.m., the fire was declared 100% contained.

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