36 people have been killed, thousands have been evacuated, and boats in the harbor have been burned as fires that reminded some residents of the end of the world and others of Word War II firebombing of German cities.
“As the firefighting efforts continue, 36 total fatalities have been discovered today amid the active Lahaina fire,” the Maui county government said in a statement on Thursday.
The fires began early on Tuesday, putting more than 35,000 people on Maui – as well as homes, businesses and utilities – at risk, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said in a statement on Wednesday.
The fast-moving flames, fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, sent some desperate residents jumping into the ocean to escape the flames. The U.S. Coast Guard said crews had rescued 14 people jumped into the Lahaina harbor in an effort to escape the flames.
The exact cause of the start of the fire is as yet unknown, however, the National Weather Service had put out warnings of extreme danger of fires, due to conditions that included dry conditions for a long time Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, said at Wednesday’s briefing. That, along with low humidity and high winds, “set the conditions for the wildfires,” he said.
A video posted on social media showed blazes tearing through the heart of Lahaina, a beachfront town of about 12,000 residents that is popular with tourists, and sending up huge plumes of black smoke.
“We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp. It’s like an apocalypse,” said resident Mason Jarvi, who escaped the fires.
More than 270 buildings have been damaged or destroyed in Lahaina.
“Much of Lahaina on Maui has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced,” said Josh Green, the town governor.
Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, told journalists the devastated areas looked like a “war zone”.
“Some of the aerial footage that we’ve seen from the area reminds me of the pictures from Dresden from World War II,” Weintraub said, referring to the German city almost destroyed by Allied bombardment.
He said additional aid had reached the affected areas on Thursday, but that the fires had hampered access and communications in several areas, complicating rescue services and the delivery of assistance.
At least 2,100 people were sheltered by the American Red Cross on Maui on Wednesday and more evacuation efforts were under way.
“We are working with the county, with the American Red Cross and with our colleagues in Honolulu county to help remove visitors and displaced residents in Maui island and find other accommodation or travel arrangements,” Weintraub added.
Al Jazeera’s Daryl Huff, reporting from Wailuku, Maui, said the winds had died down slightly after blowing at 96 to 112 kilometres per hour (60 to 70 miles per hour), giving firefighters a chance to start putting out the flames.
Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, news agencies.