Maui town engulfed in flames; people forced to flee into the ocean

Hawaii was engulfed in wildfires on Wednesday, with the historic town of Maui being significantly affected. The fires, propelled by strong winds, resulted in injuries, destroyed businesses, and necessitated evacuations. Some individuals even sought safety in the ocean and were later saved by the Coast Guard.

Lahaina Town, a favorite among tourists, was hit hard by the fires. The town’s historic district, a recognized site on the National Register of Historic Places, was not spared. The county issued a warning against visiting Lahaina Town and shut down all access routes to West Maui’s primary community, with the exception of emergency personnel.

The wildfires were primarily concentrated in two regions: West Maui and an inland mountainous area. In West Maui, residents were unable to access emergency 911 services and were instructed to reach out to the police department directly. The National Weather Service linked the wind gusts, which exceeded 60 mph and resulted in power outages and the grounding of firefighting helicopters, to Hurricane Dora, situated 500 miles south of the island chain.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard was engaged in rescue operations, saving individuals who had taken to the ocean to escape the fires and smoke. Among those rescued were 12 people from the waters off Lahaina. Several burn victims, including a critically injured woman in her 60s, were flown to Oahu for medical attention.

In response to the crisis, Acting Governor Sylvia Luke declared an emergency and activated the Hawaii National Guard. While there have been no reported fatalities, the extent of structural damage and the number of evacuations remain uncertain. Four shelters were set up, with the largest one accommodating over 1,000 individuals.

Alan Dickar, proprietor of the Vintage European Posters gallery on Lahaina’s Front Street, lost his business to the fire. Despite managing to evacuate safely with friends and pets, he is uncertain about the state of his property. He believes that rebuilding Lahaina, which houses around 13,000 residents, will require a substantial effort.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sanctioned a disaster declaration to aid with a fire that posed a threat to approximately 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch on the Big Island. The fire had already consumed more than 600 acres and was yet to be contained. Firefighters encountered obstacles such as roads blocked by fallen trees and power lines, and wind gusts that prevented helicopters from dousing the fires with water.

Around 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. The fires in Hawaii, which typically break out in large grasslands on the islands’ dry sides, can inflict considerable environmental damage. For instance, they can strip away vegetation, and if followed by heavy rainfall, loose soil can be carried into the ocean, potentially suffocating coral reefs.