Thursday, 13 Jun 2024

Tragic update on Maui fires as Hawaii reels from worst ever disaster

At least 55 people are dead and up to 1,000 are still missing as devastating wildfires continue to engulf the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The unprecedented wildfires started on Tuesday and took locals by surprise, fueled by a dry summer and made worse due to being fanned by strong winds from a passing hurricane.

Entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed by the blaze, including the historic town of Lahaina- the former capital of Hawaii- which has been all but wiped out.

The wildfire is already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami, which killed 61 people on the Big Island.

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President Joe Biden has declared the fires a major disaster, meaning the federal government will provide rescue and recovery funds.

During a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Josh Green said the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue.

‘Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,’ Green said after walking the ruins of the town Thursday morning with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. 

‘Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.’

Maui residents who desperately escaped flames, some on foot, asked why Hawaii’s famous emergency warning system didn’t alert them as fires raced toward their homes.

Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain.

But many of Lahaina’s survivors said in interviews at evacuation centres that they didn’t hear any sirens and only realised they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

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Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired mailman from Lahaina, didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke. Power and cell phone service had both gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.

He tried to leave in his Jeep, but had to abandon the vehicle and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a sea wall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.

Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in Maui County, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands — Maui, Molokai and Lanai — he said.

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they are all designed for on-road use. The department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said.

That means fire crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Lee said. The high winds caused by Hurricane Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.

‘You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,’ Lee said. ‘You’ve got to be careful — you don’t want to get caught downwind from that, because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.’

Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighbourhood that it was impossible to get communications to emergency management agencies responsible for getting warnings out.

Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old cook from Guatemala who came to the U.S. in January 2022, said that when he heard fire alarms, it was already too late to flee in his car.

‘I opened the door, and the fire was almost on top of us,’ he said from an evacuation centre at a gymnasium. ‘We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day, because the fire didn’t stop.’

Vasquez and his brother Eduardo escaped via roads that were clogged with vehicles full of people. The smoke was so toxic that he vomited. He said he’s not sure his roommates and neighbors made it to safety.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso said they only had time to grab a change of clothes and run with their 6-year-old son as the bushes around them caught fire.

‘We barely made it out,’ Kawaakoa, 34, said at an evacuation shelter, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.

As the family fled, they called 911 when they saw the Hale Mahaolu senior living facility across the road erupt in flames.

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Chelsey Vierra’s great-grandmother, Louise Abihai, was living at Hale Mahaolu, and the family doesn’t know if she got out. ‘She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,’ Vierra said Thursday. ‘She can walk. She is strong.’

Relatives are monitoring shelter lists and calling the hospital. ‘We got to find our loved one, but there’s no communication here,’ said Vierra, who fled the flames. ‘We don’t know who to ask about where she went.’

The fire is the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

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