At least 6 dead as Maui wildfires overwhelm hospitals, sever 911 services and force people to flee into the ocean

Aug 9, 2023, 6:30 PM

A wildfire burns in  Lahaina, Maui County, on Tuesday. Photo credit: Jayson Duque...

A wildfire burns in Lahaina, Maui County, on Tuesday. Photo credit: Jayson Duque

(CNN) — At least six people have died as a result of the wildfires that are continuing to ravage parts of Maui, the island’s mayor, Richard Bissen Jr., said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

“I’m sad to report that just before coming on this, it was confirmed we’ve had six fatalities,” he said. “We are still in a search and rescue mode.” He did not offer further details about the deaths.

More than a dozen people had to be rescued from the ocean, among them two young children, officials in Maui County said.

Several people are also unaccounted for, Bissen added.

“As a result of three fires that have occurred that are continuing here on our island we have had 13 evacuations from different neighborhoods and towns, we’ve had 16 road closures, we’ve opened five shelters,” Bissen said, noting more than 2,000 people were staying at shelters.

“We’ve had many dwellings – businesses, structures – that have been burned, many of them to the ground,” the mayor said, adding most were in the western town of Lahaina.

Bissen said helicopters that could not safely fly a day earlier due to high winds were in the sky Wednesday and using water drops to help suppress the flames. It will be impossible to estimate the extent of the damage until the blazes are put out, he added.

The flames have torched hundreds of acres and are still not contained.

“Local people have lost everything,” said James Kunane Tokioka, the state’s business, economic development and tourism director, at the news conference. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals and it’s devastating.”

Video footage shot by Air Maui Helicopter Tours over parts of the Lahaina area shows entire blocks were decimated by the flames, with little but ruins and ashes left, and everything still engulfed in a thick, hazy smoke.

“We were not prepared for what we saw. It was heartbreaking, it looked like an area that had been bombed in the war,” Richie Olsten, the director of operations for the tour agency, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Wednesday. “It’s just destroyed.”

“In my 52 years of flying on Maui, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Olsten added.

Hawaii’s governor, who was on a personal trip this week, said he was rushing back to the state Wednesday.

No cell service and hospitals inundated

The true scope of devastation on the idyllic Hawaiian island remains unknown.

That’s because the infernos have knocked out cell service, hindered emergency communications and trapped residents and tourists on the island, which is home to about 117,000.

The wildfires – fueled in part by Hurricane Dora churning some 800 miles away – have cut off 911 service and other communications in many parts of Maui.

“911 is down. Cell service is down. Phone service is down,” Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told CNN on Wednesday.

“Our hospital system on Maui, they are overburdened with burn patients, people suffering from inhalation,” she said. “The reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support because Maui hospital cannot do extensive burn treatment.”

The disaster also has wiped out power to more than 12,000 homes and businesses in Maui, according to PowerOutage.us.

Tourists are being discouraged from going to Maui, Luke told reporters Wednesday.

“Today we signed another emergency proclamation which will discourage tourists from going to Maui,” she said. “Even as of this morning, planes were landing on Maui with tourists. This is not a safe place to be.”

In certain parts of the island, there are shelters that are overrun, Luke added: “We have resources that are being taxed.”

Hawaii isn’t the only US state grappling with devastating wildfires – a trend some experts had predicted for this season. Parts of Texas are under a critical fire risk Wednesday, a day after a brush fire engulfed an apartment building in the Austin area.

But the crisis unfolding in Maui is extraordinary, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor said.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands, will cause this type of wildfires,” Luke told reporters at Wednesday’s news conference. “Wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes.”

A harrowing escape to a rainforest

Alan Dickar just learned one of his rental properties went up in flames when he saw Lahaina, an economic hub, get swallowed by wildfire.

“Front Street exploded in flame,” Dickar told CNN Wednesday.

Dickar, who has lived in the area for 24 years, said there was little time to flee.

“I grabbed some people I saw on the street who didn’t seem to have a good plan. And I had told them, ‘Get your stuff, get in my truck,’” he said.

“And there’s only one road that leads out of Lahaina, so obviously it was backed up,” Dickar said. “I dropped everybody else off and then I went to a place in another part of Maui that’s far away. And as soon as I got there, that whole area had to evacuate because of a totally different fire. … Just as I arrived, that whole area got evacuated.”

Dickar eventually fled to a remote part of Maui. “I figured that was enough, and I’m safe here at least from a fire evacuation because it’s a rainforest,” he said.

Clint Hansen took drone video Tuesday night that showed wildfires spreading just north of Kihei.

“Lahaina has been devastated,” Hansen told CNN. “People jumping in the ocean to escape the flames, being rescued by the Coast Guard. All boat owners are being asked to rescue people. It’s apocalyptic.”

Live Updates: Wildfires burn in Maui, prompting rescues in Lahaina

And it’s not clear where the disaster will head next.

Maui fire officials warned that erratic wind, challenging terrain, steep slopes and dropping humidity, plus the direction and the location of the fire conditions make it difficult to predict path and speed of a wildfire, according to Maui County officials.

“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Maui County Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said. “Burning airborne materials can light fires a great distance away from the main body of fire.”

Lost communications and stranded tourists

State officials are working with hotels and a local airline to try to evacuate tourists to another island, Luke said. But severed communications have hindered efforts.

“Resorts and visitors and commercial districts have lost communication due to downed cell towers and landlines that only work within very local areas. “As a result, 911 service is currently down,” said Mahina Martin, chief communications officer from Maui Emergency Management Agency.

Maui County officials have not been able to communicate with many people on the west side – including those in the Lahaina area, Luke said.

Satellite phones have been the only reliable way to get in touch with some areas, including hotels, the lieutenant governor said.

The Kahului Airport was sheltering about 1,800 travelers from “canceled flights and flight arrivals,” the Hawaii Department of Transportation posted on social media.

Members of the Hawaii National Guard are assisting with the calamity in Maui – with more on the way.

“Hawaii National Guardsmen have been activated and are currently on Maui assisting Maui Police Department at traffic control points,” Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii’s adjutant general, posted on Facebook.

The overnight deployment was hastened by the dynamic fire conditions, Hara wrote, adding more National Guard personnel would arrive in the counties of Maui and Hawaii later Wednesday.

Hurricane Dora’s impact on the wildfires

Dora, a powerful Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph, was about 795 miles southwest of Honolulu as of Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect.

As Dora travels south of the islands, a strong high-pressure system remains in place to the north. The area of high pressure in combination with Dora is producing “very strong and damaging winds,” the National Weather Service said.

Winds as high as 60 mph are expected through the overnight in Hawaii, then will begin to diminish through the day on Wednesday.

“These strong winds coupled with low humidity levels are producing dangerous fire weather conditions that will last through Wednesday afternoon,” the weather service said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the area of high pressure, as well as Dora, will both drift westward, allowing the winds to subside.

Two brushfires were burning Tuesday on the Big Island, officials said in a news release, one in the North Kohala District and the other in the South Kohala District. Some residents were under mandatory evacuation orders as power outages were impacting communications, the release said.

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At least 6 dead as Maui wildfires overwhelm hospitals, sever 911 services and force people to flee into the ocean