Maui wildfires have killed at least 53, officials say

Aug 10, 2023, 5:42 PM

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in ...

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP via CNN)

(Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP via CNN)

Originally Published: 10 AUG 23 02:08 ET
Updated: 10 AUG 23 19:34 ET

(CNN) — [Breaking news update, published at 7:33 p.m. ET]

The death toll from the catastrophic wildfires in Maui has risen to 53, Maui County officials said Thursday.

[Original story, published at 7:03 p.m. ET]

The death toll from the catastrophic wildfires in Maui has soared to 36 and is expected to still go up “significantly” as responders go through the hundreds of buildings that were burned to the ground, Hawaii’s governor said.

“That number is going to go up very significantly,” Gov. Josh Green told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “We haven’t had a loss of life instance like this for many years.”

“As we get into the many hundreds of houses that were overwhelmed by fire,” he added, “we have great concern we will find the remains of people that were not able to escape.”

He estimated that “upwards of 1,700 buildings” were destroyed.

The 36 deaths – reported officially so far by Maui County officials – appear to make the wildfire that torched the historic town of Lahaina the second deadliest blaze in the United States in a century. It trails only California’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in 2018.

The fire was 80% contained by Thursday morning, local time, Maui County officials said in a news release.

While survivors recall harrowing escapes by car or boat, many residents who fled still don’t know whether their homes and businesses have been reduced to ashes.

Federal officials believe thousands of people have been displaced.

Among them is Dustin Kaleiopu, whose home in Lahaina was destroyed. “My colleagues, friends, family – we’re all homeless,” Kaleiopu said. “We’re hoping that the death toll does not rise too much higher.”

Live updates: Deadly wildfires burn across Maui

Here’s the latest:

• Billions of dollars in losses: While it’s too early to know the full magnitude of destruction, Green, the governor, told CNN he estimates “billions of dollars of structural damage.”

• Dozens are dead: “As the firefighting efforts continue, 36 total fatalities have been discovered today amid the active Lahaina fire,” Maui County officials said late Wednesday night (Thursday morning ET). “No other details are available at this time.”

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.

• 50 people jumped into the ocean to escape: The Coast Guard plucked more than 50 people from the Pacific Ocean who had fled wildfire flames in Lahaina this week, Capt. Aja Kirksey said Thursday.

Initial reports suggested about 100 people fled into the water, and the Coast Guard is still looking for survivors or possibly victims who might not have survived in the ocean. But so far, “we have not received a report of any deceased or any additional survivors for us to recover,” Kirksey said Thursday morning.

• A historic town is virtually wiped out: Much of Lahaina, where about 12,000 people live in western Maui, has been destroyed and hundreds of families there have been displaced, the governor said. More than 270 structures have been impacted in Lahaina, county officials said.

• Some are 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, 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 should leave: Maui County officials have urged visitors to leave Lahaina and Maui as soon as possible, saying seats were available on outgoing flights. Roughly 1,400 people stayed at the airport overnight Wednesday waiting for flights out, county officials reported.

• 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.

Severed communications and an exhausting firefight

Thousands of people – especially on Maui’s western side – still can’t call 911 or update loved ones about their status because power and communications were knocked out, authorities said.

About two dozen firefighters from the Honolulu Fire Department – on the island of Oahu – have been sent to the island of Maui to help battle the blazes, said Scott Humber, spokesperson for the Honolulu mayor’s office.

Some Maui firefighters have been fighting the fires for 24 hours straight, Humber said.

Firefighters are expected to conduct an assessment Thursday morning, Maui County officials said overnight, as the full scope of the devastation remains unclear.

A disaster proclamation issued Wednesday by the governor’s office said “several large fires” continued to burn in both Maui and Hawaii counties, having already consumed “thousands of acres.” Otherwise, there’s been little information about the status of the wildfires, like the number of acres scorched or the extent to which the fires have been contained.

How the wildfires spread so quickly

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.

As of Wednesday evening, “Maui Fire Department reported no significant changes for the Lahaina, Upcountry and Pūlehu/Kīhei fires” on the island, Maui County officials said.

The ongoing drought in Hawaii worsened over the past week, helping fires spread, according to the US Drought Monitor released Thursday.

‘We have no more Lahaina. It’s gone’

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.”

Historical and cultural sites in Lahaina have also been engulfed by the fires, a CNN analysis of new Maxar Technologies satellite imagery shows.

The images, taken at 11:03 a.m. local time Wednesday, show that one of the largest banyan trees in the US – the size of an entire city block and more than 60 feet high – has burnt. It was imported from India in 1873, Hawaii’s Tourism Authority says.

Other prominent sites, including the Wo Hing Temple Museum, have been destroyed.

Parts of Maui look like they’ve been ‘bombed’ in war

Maui resident Daniel Sullivan said the scene was “apocalyptic” when an inferno enveloped his neighborhood and closed in on his family.

Sullivan saw the fire get “closer and closer – and we had no way to get out because the roads were blocked.”

His home survived, he said, but many friends lost theirs.

“The island has been decimated,” Sullivan said.

Helicopter footage shows scores of structures on Maui burned to the ground – many of them in Lahaina, a tourism and economic hub on the west side of the island.

Maui resident Jeff Melichar had to evacuate Tuesday evening as embers and smoke enveloped his home.

“I am told my house is gone, but we are not yet allowed access to West Maui,” he said.

The lieutenant governor toured the destruction in Lahaina during a flyover Wednesday and said it was “shocking and devastating.”

“The road to recovery will be long,” she said. “It’s going to take years.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Michele Numbers-Stefl.

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Maui wildfires have killed at least 53, officials say