Wildfires have destroyed the town of Lahaina on island of Maui, Hawaii, killing an estimated 55 people and forcing thousands more to abandon their homes to escape the flames.
Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier estimated the number of missing people at approximately 1,000, though he cautioned that “honestly we don’t know.”
“Doesn’t mean that’s how many that we have that have passed. I’m not saying that number at all,” he said at Thursday’s news conference. “But because we can’t contact them, and because they can’t come into the greater valley as quickly or as much as we’d like, because they’re actually in shelter, until we get some of those basic things set up, we’re not going to have that number.”
The blazes, which continued to rage on Thursday, appear to have devastated the historic centre of Lahaina, the onetime capital of the former Kingdom of Hawaii.
While damage is still being assessed, witnesses said several significant historical sites appeared to have been destroyed by the flames.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot with tour operator Air Maui, told The Associated Press news agency he had flown over the area to take stock.
“All the places that are tourist areas, that are Hawaiian history, are gone, and that can’t be replaced,” he said. “You can’t refurbish a building that’s just ashes now. It can’t be rebuilt — it’s gone forever.”
It was not immediately clear how all of the 60 historic sites in the Lahaina Historic District fared. The district encompasses more than 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres).
Speaking to The New York Times, Theo Morrison, the executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which manages several of the historic sites, said the speed of the encroaching fire made it nearly impossible to take any protective action.
“We had no preparation, no warning, nothing,” Morrison said. She noted that the roof of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which held a heritage museum with ancient Hawaiian artefacts, appears to have collapsed.
Local media also reported that the Baldwin Home, built in 1834 by Reverend Ephraim Spaulding, has been destroyed. The home was the oldest still standing in Lahaina.
Photos on social media appeared to show the famous Lahaina Banyan Tree, believed to be the largest in the United States, also severely singed.
What caused the fires? The BBC offered an explanation:
Their toll has been devastating, although what sparked the deadly fires is still under investigation.
Hurricane winds and dry weather, however, helped fuel the flames.
Drought or abnormally dry conditions across large parts of Hawaii – including the entire island of Maui – also played a role.
About 14% of the state is suffering from severe or moderate drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, while 80% of Hawaii is classed as abnormally dry.
Scientists have calculated that 90% of Hawaii is getting less rainfall than it did a century ago, with the period since 2008 particularly dry.
Maui itself was already under a red flag alert – meaning warm temperatures, very low humidities and stronger winds were expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger – even before the recent fires broke out.