A wildfire in Hawaii have killed at least 36 people, destroying the town of Lahaina on Maui as hurricane winds and dry conditions combine in catastrophe.
The fires began on Tuesday night, in dry grassland on the island of Maui. Hurricane Dora passed by the islands hundreds of miles to the south, but it caused unusually strong trade winds to whip across the archipelago. Together, the two surprised islanders by whipping small grass fires into a massive blaze and blowing it into the tourist town of Lahaina.
By Wednesday morning, officials said that at least 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people were injured. Many people literally ran into the sea to avoid the fires. On Wednesday evening, Maui county officials posted a grim statement to the local website – at least 36 people died in the fire and sea. The number is expected to rise as clean-up begins.
The town of Lahaina, which dates back to the 1700s, is all but a total loss. Aerial photos show the burnt-out remains of block after block of buildings, including all of Front Street, the heart of the tourist center. Even boats in the harbor were scorched and burned, not spared from the wildfire.
Over 2100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers, and another 2000 in Kahului Airport, trying to catch canceled flights out of the area. The Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu is being prepared to take in many of the displaced tourists and locals. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 12 people from the waves.
Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a wildfire had started up on a hillside.
“It just ripped through everything with amazing speed,” he said, adding it was “like a blowtorch.”
The winds were so strong they blew his garage door off its hinges and trapped his car in the garage. So a friend drove him to an evacuation shelter. He had no idea what had happened to their home.
“We’re hoping for the best,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s gone.”