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Maui fires wipe out historic town, death toll rises – DW – 08/11/2023

The death toll from catastrophic wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui island has risen to 55, authorities said late Thursday, adding that firefighters were still battling the flames.  

The number is expected to increase as search and rescue efforts continue across the island.

There has been widespread suffering and destruction, with thousands of people displaced and buildings destroyed.

It is one of the deadliest disasters in the US state’s history.

Hawaii wildfires declared a ‘major disaster’

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Historic town of Lahaina devastated

The fire started Tuesday and was exacerbated by a dry brush and heavy wind. The exact cause has yet to be pinpointed. 

The blaze moved quickly and rapidly engulfed Lahaina, a historic seaside town that was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Lahaina has about 12,000 residents and is a top destination for tourists.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green said, “It’s going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina.” Green said 80% of the town was gone.

“It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image with its own values,” Green said of the city that draws 2 million tourists each year, or about 80% of the island’s visitors.

‘We barely made it out’

Many people on the island were caught off-guard by the fires and made desperate attempts to flee. 

The blaze moved quickly and rapidly engulfed Lahaina, a historic seaside town that was once the capital of the Hawaiian KingdomImage: Matthew Thayer/Maui News/AP/picture alliance

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso told the AP news agency that 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.

Brandon Wilson, a Canadian, told the AFP news agency that it “really looks like somebody came along and just bombed the whole town. It’s completely devastated.”

Satellite images of Lahaina Square on Maui before and after the wildfires
Satellite images before (L) and after the fires (R) show the extent of damage in Lahaina in west Maui, HawaiiImage: Maxar Technologies via AP/picture alliance

What’s the state of rescue efforts?

US President Joe Biden on Thursday declared the wildfire as a “major disaster,” pledging federal funds for Maui.

Power outages and disruptions to telephone services in parts of the island have aggravated the emergency situation.

Evacuation and relief efforts are ongoing.

Authorities said thousands of tourists and locals have already been evacuated.

They have also deployed search and rescue teams from California and Washington state to assist with the process.

Maui police chief John Pelletier called for patience, prayers and perseverance.

“Understand this: Lahaina town is hallowed, sacred ground right now,” he said, referring to remains that have yet to be recovered. “We have to get them out.”

Fire service chief Brad Ventura advised people to stay away from the burn area as it remains very dangerous.

Passengers wait for delayed and canceled flights off the island as thousands of passengers were stranded at the Kahului Airport (OGG) in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Kahulu
Authorities said thousands of tourists and locals have already been evacuatedImage: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP

Fires follow other extreme weather events

The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with the region witnessing a scorching heatwave and record-breaking wildfires.

Robert Watson, the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told DW that climate change has raised the risk of wildfires around the planet. 

“We’re seeing changes in precipitation patterns. We’re seeing floods in some areas and droughts in others. What we see is a combination of droughts, meaning various forests are dry, they have a lot of fuel. And when you then start to get high temperatures and high winds, they’re the perfect conditions,” Watson said. 

“We’ve seen them in Canada. We’ve seen them in Greece. We’re now seeing in Hawaii. These are the sorts of effects we’re going to see in forests all around the world,” he added. 

sri/sms (AP, AFP)

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