Hawaii town on Maui burns; people flee into the ocean

Wildfires, fueled by strong winds, swept across parts of Hawaii on Wednesday, causing significant damage in the historic town of Maui. Several people were injured, businesses were destroyed, and evacuations were enforced. Some residents sought refuge in the ocean, where they were later rescued by the Coast Guard.

The fires were particularly severe in Lahaina Town, a popular tourist destination. The town’s historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was also affected. The county urged residents not to visit Lahaina Town and closed all roads leading to West Maui’s largest community, except for emergency personnel.

The fires were concentrated in two areas: West Maui and an inland mountainous region. In West Maui, emergency 911 services were unavailable, and residents were advised to contact the police department directly. The National Weather Service attributed the gusts exceeding 60 mph, which caused power outages and grounded firefighting helicopters, to Hurricane Dora, located 500 miles south of the island chain.

The Coast Guard was active on Tuesday, rescuing people who had sought safety in the ocean from the fires and smoke. A dozen people were rescued from the waters off Lahaina. Some burn victims were transported to Oahu for treatment, including a woman in her 60s who was in critical condition.

Acting Governor Sylvia Luke declared a state of emergency and activated the Hawaii National Guard to assist. While no deaths have been reported, the number of structures destroyed and people evacuated is still unknown. Four shelters were opened, with over 1,000 people at the largest one.

Alan Dickar, owner of the Vintage European Posters gallery on Front Street in Lahaina, lost his business to the fire. He managed to evacuate safely with friends and pets but is unsure of what remains of his property. He believes it will take a significant effort to rebuild Lahaina, home to approximately 13,000 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to assist with a fire threatening about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch on the Big Island. The fire had already burned more than 600 acres and was still uncontained. Firefighters faced challenges such as blocked roads due to downed trees and power lines, and wind gusts preventing helicopters from dumping water on the fires.

Approximately 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. The fires in Hawaii, which typically occur in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands, can cause significant environmental damage. For instance, fires can remove vegetation, and subsequent heavy rainfall can carry loose soil into the ocean, potentially smothering coral reefs.