'Thickest black smoke': 36 dead, thousands flee as Hawaii wildfires rage in Maui. Live updates

MAUI, Hawaii − Evacuations and damage assessment will continue Thursday on the battered island of Maui where catastrophic blazes killed at least 36 people, damaged hundreds of structures and leveled a historic and beloved town in one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years.

Officials said more than 270 structures were damaged or destroyed, including entire blocks of homes, businesses and a 200-year-old church in Lahaina Town in Maui. The blazes were fueled by wind from passing Hurricane Dora and exacerbated by overly dry vegetation and the ongoing drought. On the Big Island, three wildfires were burning, though two of them were at least 60% contained.

The Maui Fire Department will conduct a damage assessment at first light Thursday, county officials said. A mass bus evacuation for visitors in West Maui will resume Thursday morning, taking visitors directly to the Kahului Airport. Strong winds are expected to die down Thursday and Friday, but there's no rainfall in the forecast for the parts of Maui impacted by the fire.

President Joe Biden said in a statement he has ordered “all available federal assets” to help combat the wildfires, including Black Hawk helicopters provided by the Marines. The Coast Guard rescued 14 people from the waters off Lahaina as residents fled into the ocean to escape the flames and smoke.

Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said late Wednesday "the road to recovery will be long." Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”

"With lives lost and properties decimated, we are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time," Bissen said.

Wildfires triggered by strong winds roar across Maui.

Officials work to suppress fire, restore power

Evacuation efforts have been complicated by power blackouts, a lack of cell service, the loss of 911 service and downed power lines in different parts of the islands. More than 11,000 customers remained without power Thursday according to Poweroutage.us.

Hara said Wednesday night that officials were working to restore communication, distribute water and possibly add law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had flown for 13 hours and dropped 150,000 gallons of water on the fires.\

County officials said three active fires on Maui remained unchanged at the end of the day Wednesday. Firefighters have been dealing with multiple flareups and have requested additional personnel from Honolulu.

Sen. Mazie Hirono said the priorities include fire suppression and restoring telephone access and electrical power as search and rescue efforts continue.

“This is truly an all hands on deck situation,” Hirono said.

Flames from a wildfire burn in Kihei, Hawaii on Aug. 9, 2023.

Tourists and residents fleeing to Maui airport

About 11,000 visitors flew out of Maui on Wednesday, and at least another 1,500 expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. The Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu was being prepared to accommodate up to 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires.\

Lahaina resident Jordan Saribay saw homes burst into flames “as tall as the buildings because they were engulfing them.’’ Debris turned into dangerous projectiles as people whose cars had run out of gas tried to flee while carrying their prized possessions, he said.

“While driving through the neighborhood, it looked like a war zone,’’ Saribay said. “Houses throughout that neighborhood were already on fire. I’m driving through the thickest black smoke, and I don’t know what’s on the other side or what’s in front of me.’’

Passengers try to rest after canceled and delayed flights as thousands were stranded at the Kahului Airport in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui on Aug. 9, 2023.

Firefighters could see some relief with winds letting up

The high winds fueling wildfires began to wane late Wednesday and will continue to ease during the day Thursday and into Friday, providing some much needed relief for firefighters battling the blazes, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Heather Zehr told USA TODAY.

Zehr said wind gusts Thursday could occasionally get to 30-35 mph; local peaks of 40 mph were possible. Later in the day and into Friday, that should ease further with gusts not getting over about 20 mph.

“It should be better conditions now for today, easier for the firefighters to be able to do what they need to do and hopefully get some better control over these fires,” Zehr said.

− Jeanine Santucci

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Why devastated Lahaina Town is such a cherished place on Maui

Residents and visitors are mourning the loss of cultural and religious sites in Lahaina Town that trace their roots back centuries.

Lahaina, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, has a population of around 13,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Lahaina Town has also long claimed home to the largest banyan tree in the U.S., which was scorched by the fires.

For Francine Hollinger, a 66-year-old Native Hawaiian, losing Lahaina was "like losing a family member."

In just a few hours, the wind-driven blaze tore through popular Front Street and decimated the town center, which traces its roots to the 1700s and was on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Lahaina Town is now burned down to ashes, the whole entire town − hotels, buildings, the historic sites,'' said Leomana Turalde, who said his mother worked for years as a dancer at Old Lahaina Luau, considered a "well-preserved epicenter of Hawaiian culture and storytelling," according to its website.

How drought helped fuel Hawaii wildfires

Much of the state is in varying levels of drought, and parts of Maui are affected by moderate and severe drought conditions, including some areas around Lahaina, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. An estimated 263,948 Hawaii residents are living in drought areas, the Drought Monitor said Thursday. 

The duration and severity of droughts in Hawaii have increased over the last century, the National Integrated Drought Information System has warned

With drought comes vegetation that’s drier than it would usually be, which adds power to a wildfire, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Heather Zehr told USA TODAY. That risk could continue, as there’s no rainfall expected soon for the part of Maui impacted by fire.

“As long as you’re stuck in this pattern when you’re not getting a lot of rainfall, you’re going to continue to have these problems where it doesn’t take much to start a fire and it takes even less to make it spread,” Zehr said.

− Jeanine Santucci

Aerial photos show damage in Lahaina, Banyan Court

Satellite imagery and photos from the ground revealed the devastating damage wildfires have done to Maui landmarks including Lahaina's iconic banyan tree, Front Street and Waiola Church.

The banyan tree, planted in 1873 after being imported from India, was threatened by the fires and suffered damage to trunks and limbs but remains standing, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

This combination of pictures shows an overview of Banyan court in Lahaina, Hawaii. The photo on the left was taken June 25, 2023, before wildfires caused widespread damage in the area. The photo on the right was taken Aug. 9, 2023, after fires had passed through.

What caused the Maui fires?

High winds and low humidity likely contributed to the fires, but officials know little else, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, at a briefing Wednesday. Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm in the Pacific Ocean, fueled the strong winds overnight in Maui, with gusts of 60 mph damaging homes and knocking out power.

But some experts said they suspect human development on the island is at least partly to blame for the destruction.

Wildfires have quadrupled in Hawaii in recent decades, and many scientists say the culprit is unmanaged, non-native grasslands planted by plantations and ranchers and others unfamiliar with the island's native ecosystems. The grass is dry and prone to fires.

“There is no doubt that fire-prone grasses have invaded drier Hawaiian ecosystems and brought larger, more intense fires,” said Peter Vitousek, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

− Marc Ramirez

Mauro Farinelli and his wife, Judit, stand with their dog, Susi, at an evacuation shelter in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Aug. 9, 2023, after escaping fires that engulfed their town of Lahaina on the island of Maui.

Maui death toll climbs 

At least 36 people have died in the Lahaina fire in Hawaii, Maui County wrote in a statement posted to the county website Wednesday evening.

Six patients were flown from Maui to the island of Oahu on Tuesday night, said Speedy Bailey, regional director for the air-ambulance company Hawaii Life Flight. Three of them had critical burns and were taken to Straub Medical Center’s burn unit in Honolulu, he said. The others were taken to other Honolulu hospitals. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, said Bailey

Maui fire map  

Maui wildfire map: A look at how Hurricane Dora and low humidity are fueling Hawaii fires

How to help Hawaii fire victims

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defense, asked those who want to donate supplies or volunteer to do so through the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. James Kunane Tokioka, director of the department of business, economic development and tourism, said the governor has also asked people with vacant homes or vacation rentals to provide shelter for those in need.

Several shelters are open to assist those on the islands and several local organizations are collecting donations. USA TODAY compiled resources for Americans to help people and animals in Hawaii here.

Contributing: The Associated PressAshley Lewis and Kayla Jimenez, USA TODAY

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