The catastrophic wildfires that have been scorching Maui for three days have killed at least 53 people, officials said Thursday – a number they expect will keep rising as search teams begin venturing into neighborhoods and homes that were reduced to ashes.
Officials say the devastation is so widespread – and so catastrophic – that it’s hard to estimate just how many buildings were burned to the ground or damaged, but they estimate hundreds of structures have been impacted.
The “older neighborhood” of Lahaina, an economic hub in western Maui that drew millions of tourists each year, is destroyed, Maui County Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr. said in a Thursday afternoon news conference.
“It’s all gone,” he said.
And with power and cell service out in western Maui, officials don’t know how many people who may have tried to escape are still missing.
“What we saw was likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history,” Gov. Josh Green said in the news conference after touring Lahaina on Thursday. “All of us will have a loved one here on Maui that we know of, that lost a house, that lost a friend.”
The 53 deaths would make the wildfire that torched Lahaina’s historic districts the second deadliest blaze in the United States in a century. It would trail only California’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in 2018.
With thousands of people now with nowhere to go, Green appealed to hotels and residents across the state to open their rooms and homes to those who have been displaced.
“If you have additional space in your home, if you have the capacity to take someone in from west Maui, please do,” the governor said. “Please consider bringing those people into your lives.”
Among them is Dustin Kaleiopu, whose home in Lahaina was destroyed. “My colleagues, friends, family – we’re all homeless,” Kaleiopu said.
Earlier Thursday, the governor told CNN he estimated “upwards of 1,700 buildings” were destroyed.
And the blazes on the island continue to burn. Maui County officials estimated the fire that burned Lahaina was 80% contained by Thursday morning, local time. None of the other fires burning on the island was 100% contained, officials said Thursday.
Those who survived recall harrowing escapes by car or boat, racing through thick smoke, while some fled into the ocean to avoid being burned as the fires spread Tuesday. At least 17 people were rescued from the water by the Coast Guard and 40 others from the shore, the force said in a news release, adding search and rescue operations are ongoing.
• Billions of dollars in losses: While it’s too early to know the full magnitude of destruction, the governor said “it will be in the billions of dollars, without a doubt.”
• Dozens are dead: The death toll was 53 Thursday, Maui County officials said.
• Biden approves disaster declaration: The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden had approved a disaster declaration, freeing up federal aid to assist in the recovery in Maui County.
“It is going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina. When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you,” Green said in Thursday’s news conference. “All of those buildings, virtually, are going to have to be rebuilt. It will be a new Lahaina.”
• People still unaccounted for: Three helicopters from the US Coast Guard and US Navy were used in search and rescue efforts along the west Maui coastline, and a federal team arrived Wednesday to help search efforts in the Lahaina area, officials said.
• Thousands don’t have cell phone service: It could take days or even weeks to fix cell phone networks in Maui. Officials have been using satellite phones to communicate with providers on the west side of Maui to restore power to the area, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said.
• Power outages continue: More than 10,000 homes and businesses on Maui had no power Thursday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. Additional crews are being deployed from Oahu, Hawaiian Electric said.
• There’s not enough long-term shelter: More than 1,300 people stayed at shelters Wednesday night, Maui officials said. While there’s enough shelter for an emergency response for a few days, “there’s not enough shelter for long-term living,” the governor told CNN.
• Visitors relocated: Maui County officials have urged visitors to leave Lahaina and Maui as soon as possible, saying seats were available on outgoing flights. More than 14,000 people were transported off Maui on Wednesday, and officials expect an additional 14,500 to be moved off the island Thursday, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority said.
• Airlines increase capacity: Alaska, Delta, United and American all brought in larger planes to get more people off the island. Southwest dropped its fares and increased service.
• Hospitals are overwhelmed: Hospitals on Maui were overwhelmed with burn patients and people suffering from smoke inhalation, Luke told CNN Wednesday.
Fanned in part by fierce winds from Hurricane Dora passing hundreds of miles to the south, the wildfires on Maui – and to a lesser extent, Hawaii’s Big Island – ignited and spread Tuesday.
The infernos jumped over freeways, barreled through neighborhoods and obliterated homes and businesses.
One of the fires on Maui, the Pulehu fire burning in an area near Kīhei, was 70% contained as of that morning, Maui County officials said, while another fire in Maui’s upcountry had no reported containment percentage.
“Firefighting crews are continuing efforts to protect structures and extinguish smoldering hot spots,” county officials said.
An ongoing drought in Hawaii worsened over the past week, helping fires spread, according to the US Drought Monitor released Thursday.
In the devastated Maui town of Lahaina, Mark Stefl and Michele Numbers-Stefl have lost their home to a wildfire for the second time in less than five years.
They first saw flames under half a mile from their home on Tuesday before the winds quickly intensified – and the fire suddenly was in their yard, Mark Stefl told CNN on Wednesday.
“We just lost our house again. Twice in four years,” Mark Stefl said.
The first time their home burned to the ground, it was from a quick-moving fire fanned by winds from 2018’s Hurricane Lane. Now, the two-story yellow home they rebuilt is gone, and so are their cat and dog.
“The fire just engulfed our house,” he said. “We have no more Lahaina. It’s gone.”
May Wedelin-Lee, a 20-year resident of Maui, was at home, just about a block away from the heart of Lahaina, as she watched flames race toward her community Tuesday.
“It didn’t take long: From when the wind shifted until when we were like, ‘We need to go,’ it was maybe five, 10 minutes,” Wedelin-Lee said.
She jumped in her truck and left. Around her, complete chaos.
“It was just panic. People were crying on the side of the road and begging,” she said Thursday. “People jumped in each other’s (cars), people had bicycles, people ran, people had skateboards, people had cats under their arms … just sprinting down the street.”
“The apocalypse was happening. It was the worst nightmare. Imagine the worst you can picture, and it was 1,000 times worse than that.”
With no home – and no job after the restaurant Wedelin-Lee worked in was destroyed – it’s hard to think about anything else other than getting hold of loved ones to make sure they are alive and safe, she said.
“There’s so many unaccounted for, still. So, thinking about tomorrow is not even an issue right now. It’s just finding our friends, finding our families, finding our loved ones,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Michele Numbers-Stefl.