A devastating wildfire that has left a historic Hawaiian town in ruins has killed at least 55 people, authorities said on Thursday, making it one of the deadliest disasters in history. US state history.
Wildfires on the west coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui – fueled by high winds from a nearby storm – broke out on Tuesday and quickly engulfed the resort town of Lahaina.
The flames moved so fast that many people were caught off guard, trapped in the streets or jumping into the sea in a desperate attempt to escape.
“Looks like someone has come and bombed the whole town. It’s absolutely devastated,” said Canadian Brandon Wilson, who had traveled to Hawaii with his wife to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, but was at the airport trying to find them a flight. “It’s really hard to see,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “You feel so bad for everyone. They lost their homes, their lives, their livelihoods.
The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heatwave in the southwestern United States.
Europe and parts of Asia also suffered from high temperatures, with massive fires and devastating floods.
Governor Josh Green said: “What we are witnessing today is catastrophic…perhaps the largest natural disaster in the history of the state of Hawaii. “In 1960, we had 61 deaths when a big wave hit the Big Island,” he said earlier in the day, referring to the tragedy that occurred a year after Hawaii became the 50th US state. “This time it is very likely that our total death toll will significantly exceed that number.” Maui County officials said shortly after 9 a.m.:
As of 00:00 a.m. Thursday (07:00 GMT Friday), the death toll is 55 and firefighters are still battling the blaze in the city that was once the capital of the kingdom of Hawaii in the early 19th century.
Photos taken by an AFP photographer while flying over Lahaina show it being turned into blackened, smoking wreckage.
The skeletons of burned trees still stood, rising above the ashes of the buildings they once sheltered. Green said 80% of the town is gone.
“The buildings that we all enjoyed and celebrated together for decades, over generations, have been completely demolished,” he said.
Thousands of people have lost their homes and Green said a major campaign is underway to find housing. “We will have to accommodate thousands of people,” he told a news conference. “This means reaching out to all of our hotels and people in the community to ask people to rent more rooms at their property.”
President Joe Biden on Thursday said the fires were a “major disaster” and offered federal aid to relief efforts, with reconstruction expected to take years.
US Coast Guard commander Aja Kirk-sey told CNN that about 100 people jumped into the water in a desperate attempt to flee the fast-moving flames as they swept through Lahaina.
Kirksey said helicopter pilots had difficulty seeing due to the thick smoke, but a Coast Guard vessel was able to rescue more than 50 people from the water.
“It was a very fast-paced scene and it was quite heartbreaking for the victims who had to jump into the water,” she added. For residents of Kekoa Lansford, the horror is far from over. “We still have bodies floating in the water and on the breakwater,” Lansford told CBS.
“We’ve got people out… We’re trying to save lives and I feel like we’re not getting the help we need.” Green said about 1,700 buildings are believed to have been affected by the blaze.—APP