By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)
Follow live updates about wildfires burning across parts of Maui in Hawaii, destroying a historic town and forcing evacuations. The National Weather Service says Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain, was partly to blame for strong winds that initially drove the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that authorities are still trying to locate and identify people who died in Lahaina when the fire raced through the town.
“People whose homes are not damaged — you can come home as soon as we have recovered those who have perished,” he said. “Please allow us to complete this process.”
Search and rescue teams from California and Washington state, which are trained in disaster skills including using dogs to find human remains, have been deployed to Maui to assist with the process, officials said.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier asked for patience, prayers and perseverance.
“We have to respect that we have loved ones in that earth and we have to get them out,” he said, adding that his officers are trained to catch “bad guys” and not specifically to pull bodies from buildings.
People also need to stay away from the burn area because it remains very hazardous, according to Fire Chief Brad Ventura, who said some people have been hurt by falling telephone poles.
Palmdale, California, resident Kimberly Buen said she can’t reach her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a 79-year-old retired sport fisherman who can’t see or walk well.
Her dad has two friends who drive him to the pharmacy and help read his mail, she said, but neither can get back to Lahaina, the historic town where her father lives that is now reduced to charred vehicles and ash.
“He has no way out,” Buen said. “I’ve been checking all the lists, all the social media and following all the people at the shelters. I already called the Red Cross. And I just don’t know what else to do.”
She’s not the only one frantically searching from afar.
Marcia Reynolds, of Natick, Massachusetts, had been deciphering handwritten shelter sign-in sheets posted online for signs of her sister, 77-year-old Regina Campisi, who is recovering from surgery. She was later found safe, Reynolds said.
“We are all so relieved,” she said.
Maui officials have opened a Family Assistance Center at the Kahului Community Center for people seeking those unaccounted for. The Maui Emergency Management Agency will pass out forms and help locate the missing.
The death toll from devastating wildfires in Maui climbed to 53 Thursday, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told The Associated Press.
“We’re talking about the largest natural disaster of this generation in Hawaii,” Green said. “We are heart-sick that there are more than the original 36 who have passed.”
He expects the number to increase as crews continue to search for survivors.
Green said it looks like there have been more than 1,000 structures destroyed.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Green said after walking the town Thursday morning with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. “Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
Philanthropy experts recommend that people seeking to donate to Maui’s wildfire victims wait to do so.
Regine Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, says the full scope of need may not be known for up to a week as firefighters finish up their response.
She also urged potential donors to support organizations with deep local ties and community knowledge.
People can also donate through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, which vets fundraisers for those who have lost property or were injured. The organization will conduct additional verification before releasing the funds. They also deduct a transaction fee.
Images and stories coming out of the historic town of Lahaina paint an increasingly grim scene as Hawaii’s emergency responders work to rescue victims and control wildfires that have ravaged parts of Maui this week.
A flyover of the area Thursday showed normally vibrant communities had been reduced to gray and black. Street after street was nothing but rubble and foundation, said Associated Press video journalist Ty O’Neil, who was on the flight. The road was littered with charred vehicles, and an elementary school was left a mess of collapsed steel. Though pockets of wispy smoke remained, there were no active flames visible.
Tiffany Kidder Winn arrived in Lahaina on Wednesday to survey the damage. Her gift store, Whalers Locker, was destroyed along with many others on Front Street. The scene became gruesome, she said, when she came across a line of burnt-out vehicles, some with charred bodies inside.
“It looked like they were trying to get out but were stuck in traffic,” she said.
She later spotted a body leaning against a seawall. He had managed to climb over but died before he could reach the ocean while escaping flames, she surmised. Now and then, she would pause to allow her emotions and sense of horror to spill out.
“The fire came through so quickly that there was no notice,” she said. “I think a lot of people just had no time to get out.”
President Joe Biden spoke with Gov. Green by phone and offered his condolences for lives lost and land destroyed by the wildfires, the White House said.
He pledged federal disaster aid to ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or who’s home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”
Biden promised to streamline requests for federal assistance and said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on Maui. He also ordered all available Coast Guard and Air Force personnel on the island to work with the Hawaii National Guard.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii. But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, the White House announced the president had approved a disaster declaration for the state, clearing the way for federal aid. The funding will include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover damaged uninsured property and other programs for Maui residents and businesses suffering losses.
Officials are still trying to get a handle on the fires’ progress but know they’re not fully contained, Hawaii Emergency Management spokesman Adam Weintraub said.
“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” he said. “Our search and rescue teams from Maui and supporting agencies are not able to do their job until the fire lines are secure.”
Gov. Green, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers headed to Maui on Thursday morning to assess the damage from devastating wildfires, Schatz wrote on social media.
Emergency rescue, recovery and firefighting operations were still underway, so the group would be careful not to interfere with those efforts, Schatz wrote on the X platform, previously known as Twitter.
“Winds are finally backing off. The number of dead continues to rise,” Schatz wrote.
Officials on Thursday confirmed 53 deaths from the wildfires that swept across parts of Maui this week, driven by fierce winds from a hurricane passing far south of the island chain. Dozens more people were injured.
The damage assessment will help Hawaii’s leaders get a better idea of what federal aid is needed.
In a Facebook post, the governor asked that Hawaii’s residents provide all the emotional and financial support they can to residents of Lahaina and Maui, calling the wildfires “the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in generations.”
A mass evacuation effort resumed Thursday morning for visitors and residents stranded just north of a historic town in Maui that was destroyed, officials said.
Buses were slated to pick up people in Kaanapali, north of Lahaina, taking visitors directly to the Kahului Airport and residents to a shelter in central Maui, the county of Maui announced on Facebook.
The wildfires, driven by strong winds from a hurricane passing far to the south of the island chain, raced through Lahaina and other parts of Maui on Tuesday night. At least 53 people have died and dozens more were injured. The fire is the deadliest since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and virtually razed the town of Paradise.
The main road that runs along the western coastline of Maui — also the only road in and out of Lahaina — was closed to most traffic while firefighting and emergency rescue efforts continued.
Officials in Hawaii warned Thursday that the death toll could rise, with the fires still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.
Search-and-rescue teams fanned out in devastated areas to look for survivors, Weintraub, of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Addressing the fear of additional deaths, Weintraub said authorities are “hoping for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst.”
Wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.
The wildfires ripping through Maui left a swath of devastation for blocks in the historic town of Lahaina, videos and photos of the tourist destination show.
Historic buildings along Lahaina’s popular Front Street were charred and flattened on Wednesday, with power lines draped across roadways and abandoned cars left as blackened husks.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company, flew over the fire site on Wednesday and was shocked by a scene where it “looked like a bomb went off.”
“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that. We had tears in our eyes, the other pilots on board and the mechanics and me,” he said, recalling even the boats in the harbor were burned.
Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom under Kings Kamehameha II and III from 1820 to 1845 and served as a main port for the North Pacific whaling fleet, according to the National Park Service.
Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Ty O’Neil from Lahaina, Maui; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Claire Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; Christopher Megerian contributed from Salt Lake City, Utah; Bobby Caina Calvan from New York City; and Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts.