Maui fires death toll rises to at least 53, hundreds forced to evacuate; Biden approves disaster declaration
Written by Roneel Narayan on August 11, 2023
The death toll from fast-moving wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui island rose Thursday, with at least 53 people now confirmed dead, officials said. One blaze, which nearly destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, was said to be 80% contained earlier in the day.
Officials had earlier warned the death toll could continue to go up, with multiple fires on the island still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.
Police urged people to stay away from Lahaina “due to biohazard and safety concerns” and said arrangements would be made to let residents back into the area at a later date.
Evacuations were continuing Thursday with officials providing buses to take people from the disaster area on the western part of the island to a shelter or Maui’s Kahului Airport. Maui officials said 1,400 people stayed at the airport overnight Wednesday while waiting for flights off the island.
President Biden approved on Thursday a federal disaster declaration for Maui. The move makes federal funding available to people on the island affected by the fires.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers — every asset we have will be available to them,” Mr. Biden said during an event in Salt Lake City marking the first anniversary of a veterans benefits law. “They’ve seen their homes, their businesses destroyed, and some have lost loved ones, and it’s not over yet.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Hawaii on Friday to meet with state and local officials about ongoing recovery efforts, the agency announced Thursday evening.
The Coast Guard said Thursday it had rescued 17 people from the water and located 40 survivors ashore. The Coast Guard currently has no reports of missing persons in the water.
Thirty guardsmen are assisting Maui police with traffic control, and 16 roads are still closed on Maui, Jeff Hickman, public affairs director for the state’s Department of Defense, said Thursday afternoon.
Two Army National Guard helicopters are on their second day of fire suppression after dropping over 100,000 gallons of water throughout 58 runs on Wednesday, Hickman said.
About 12,400 people in West Maui were without power as of Thursday afternoon, as access continues to be limited due to safety concerns, Hawaiian Electric said. “We recognize the gravity and hardship of having prolonged outages during these challenging times and we are starting damage assessments to determine restorations in West Maui areas,” utility spokesperson Shayna Decker said in a statement.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, who was travelling but is now back in the state, issued an emergency proclamation Thursday that allows out-of-state doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to deliver health care services on the Island of Maui for an emergency period.
The Lahaina blaze was one of several that devastated entire communities in Hawaii, initially spread by winds from Hurricane Dora as it passed far to the south.
Terrifying images out of a Maui neighbourhood showed home after home swallowed by fast-moving flames Tuesday night as residents scrambled to escape.
The wildfires took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once-busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood.
Amid the chaos, Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News on Thursday that there wasn’t any warning about the fire and they left with only what they were wearing.
“The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbour’s yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out,” Kaleiopu said.
He and a group of about a dozen family members are staying with a cousin in a safer part of the island, and he’s seen in aerial footage that there’s nothing for him to go back to.
“All of my neighbourhood is completely destroyed, my grandparents’ house completely destroyed, my mother’s house, my brother’s house,” Kaleiopu said. “Everyone that I know, I’ve seen their houses just burned down to piles of ash. There’s nothing recognizable in the rubble, and I wouldn’t know what I was looking at if I were to make it back home, or at least to where home used to be.”
William Bugle, 76, told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti he was burned on his arm when the roof blew off his house and he was hit by red-hot shingles.
“It went from like nothing to, like, I felt this heat, this tremendous heat,” Bugle said.
Flames forced people to dive into the water for safety.
Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.
On Wednesday, crews were continuing to battle blazes in several places on Maui. Authorities urged visitors to stay away.
The fires were the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed Wednesday, allowing pilots to view the full scope of the devastation. Aerial video from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine. Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbor were scorched, and gray smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that,” said Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company. “We had tears in our eyes.”
An emotional Lahaina resident, Kekoa Lansford, told CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV Front Street is “completely burned.”
He said the decimation on Maui is a “nationwide issue at this point. … We need help. A lot of help. We got to get people down here. We need funds allocated for fixing our home(s). We are out here working.”
State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement Wednesday that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of an elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.
“Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus — on Front Street in Lahaina — sustained extensive fire and structural damage,” he said. “The Department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week.”
Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.
More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.
Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.
Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.
“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said.
Dickar took video of flames engulfing the main strip before escaping with three friends and two cats.
“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”
Dickar told CBS News’ Patrick Torphy, “Maui can’t handle this. … A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes. … This is going to be devastating for Maui.”
Wildfires were also burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there. Roth said firefighters extinguished some roof fires and there were continuing flareups of one fire near the Mauna Kea Resorts.
The National Weather Service canceled its red flag wildfires warning and high winds advisory for all of Hawaii on Wednesday night.
With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, to distribute water, and possibly adding law enforcement personnel.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said the flames had wiped out communities and urged travellers to stay away.
“This is not a safe place to be,” she said.
Luke had previously issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Green, who was travelling out of state at the time the fires broke out. Green returned Wednesday evening and posted a video to social media from Lahaina.
“We probably have well over a thousand buildings which have been destroyed,” Green said in the video.
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. A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.