Destructive wildfires in Maui, Hawaii have claimed at least 115 lives, left nearly 400 people missing and destroyed more than 2 200 structures from August 8 to 9, 2023.
Note: The latest updated information about this event is at the end of the article
The worst affected was the historic town of Lahaina where rapidly spreading wildfire from late August 8 to 9 killed 80 people and left 1 000 unaccounted for. Unfortunately, the confirmed deaths are only of people found outside of homes so the number will continue rising. At least 26 people have been hospitalized, three of whom with critical burns.
This is now the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since it joined the United States in 1959. The previous was a tsunami that killed 61 people and damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes and businesses on May 22, 1960. The tsunami was produced by the 10-minute-long M9.5 earthquake in southwest Chile — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded.
According to damage assessments made by the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the fire in Lahaina resulted in an estimated total of 2 719 structures exposed, 2 207 structures damaged or destroyed, and 878 ha (2 170 acres) burned. 86% of buildings exposed to the fire were classified as residential.
The downtown Lahaina Historic District — a National Historic Landmark — suffered extensive damage, with numerous historic landmarks destroyed or severely damaged.
A total of 1 418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters at War Memorial Gymnasium, Hannibal Tavares Community Center, Maui High School, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Maui Lani, Kings Cathedral Church and Grace Bible Church, as of 21:30 LT on August 11 (07:30 UTC on August 12).
The disaster in Lahaina started after midnight (LT) on Tuesday, August 8, when a brush fire was reported in Kula, some 55 km (35 miles) from the town. Power outages started around 05:00 LT and by 15:30 LT the fire was reported in the town, with some residents evacuating while others stayed, including hotel guests who were instructed to shelter in place.
The fire spread rapidly across the town over the next couple of hours, trapping many residents and tourists and forcing 17 of them to jump into the ocean to escape the flames. They were rescued by the Coast Guard some 6 hours later.
As search and rescue teams continue their operations, authorities have launched an investigation to determine why little to no warning was given to residents and tourists.
There are currently 3 active wildfires in Maui — Lahaina Fire (85% contained), Pūlehu/Kīhei (80% contained), and Kula (50% contained).
Limited cellphone service is now available in West Maui but at least 12 000 customers are still without power.
Lāhainā, a charming town situated on the west coast of Maui, Hawai’i, is steeped in a rich tapestry of history that serves as a testament to Hawai’i’s diverse and dynamic past. Once the royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the early 19th century, Lāhainā has been a focal point for a myriad of cultures and epochs, from its ancient Hawaiian roots to its time under the Hawaiian monarchy and its era as a bustling whaling port.
The town’s significance is further underscored by its strategic importance during the height of the whaling industry in the mid-1800s when it became a primary anchorage for Pacific fleets, drawing sailors from around the world. This international influx later paved the way for a melting pot of cultures, evident in Lāhainā’s architecture, festivals, and cultural landmarks.
Moreover, Lāhainā played a pivotal role in the religious history of Hawai’i. American missionaries, attracted by its prominence, established churches and schools here, forever influencing the cultural and spiritual landscape of the island.
Unfortunately, numerous landmarks in downtown Lahaina Historic District suffered damage or destruction due to a rapidly spreading wildfire on August 8 and 9.
The Waiola Church, celebrating its bicentennial just months ago, bore significant losses, with its main sanctuary, annex, and social hall being reduced to ashes. Waiola Church’s cemetery, historically significant as the resting place for members of the Hawaiian Royal Family, including the church’s founder Queen Keōpūolani, thankfully remained intact. The Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, dedicated in 1858, defied early reports of its demise. While its exterior, including the steeple, survived, concerns remain about the potential interior and roof damage.
The Lāhainā Jodo Mission, a Buddhist temple with roots dating back to 1912 and having stood at its current spot since 1932, along with the iconic Pioneer Inn, erected in 1901 by George Alan Freeland, were other casualties of the blaze. Another poignant loss was the Na Aikana Cultural Center, an emblem of local resilience, as it once provided sustenance to plantation workers during a crucial ILWU strike against the Pioneer Mill.
The Old Lāhainā Courthouse, a beacon of Lāhainā’s trade history since 1860, saw its roof obliterated by the flames. The surrounding Lāhainā Banyan Court Park was also heavily damaged. The Lāhainā Heritage Museum, nestled within the courthouse, lost irreplaceable artifacts that chronicled the town’s vibrant epochs – from its ancient Hawaiian days to its plantation and whaling eras. Fortunately, digital replicas of the museum’s documents have been preserved online.
Adding to the devastation, the Baldwin Home Museum, a cherished relic from the 1830s and the home of missionaries Dwight and Charlotte Fowler Baldwin, was razed. Historical treasures lost to the fire included Baldwin’s medical instruments – which played a pivotal role in the vaccination efforts against smallpox during the 19th century, unique seashell collections, and furniture transported from the East Coast. Lastly, the Wo Hing Society Hall, built in the 1910s and later transformed into the Wo Hing Museum in the 1980s to celebrate Lāhainā’s Chinese heritage, bore the brunt of the inferno.
The death toll rose to 93 on Sunday, August 13, but the governor warned it’s still expected to rise. Officials have hesitated to offer an estimate of the total number of fatalities, noting that many people who remain unaccounted for may not be reachable due to unreliable cell service.
The Lahaina Fire is now the deadliest in the US in more than a century. Approximately 2 700 structures have been destroyed, with most of them homes.
“On the ground, recovery teams armed with cadaver dogs are going from house to house and business to business in search of remains. Remains have also been found in cars and on the road,” the Hawaii News Now reported.
U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said after visiting Lahaina that the fire tore through the town incredibly fast, outpacing anything that firefighters could have done.
Authorities have confirmed sirens were not sounded in Lahaina and acknowledged evacuation alerts didn’t reach many because cell phone towers and power had already been lost.
An estimated 4 500 people have been displaced.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as of August 15, at least 105 fatalities and 20 injured people have been reported, and hundreds of people are still missing. Over 8 000 people have been evacuated, including 7 500 in Lahaina City, and 570 people are still in evacuation centers.
This is also the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, surpassing the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which killed 85 people.
A total of 115 fatalities have been confirmed, with all single-story homes in the disaster zone now checked.
Additionally, 388 individuals remain unaccounted for.
Currently, 341 emergency staff, assisted by 50 canine teams, are scouring multi-story residential and commercial buildings. To facilitate safe inspections by first responders, heavy machinery is being utilized to clear obstacles, such as vehicles and building debris. At present, there are no debris clearance operations happening in Lahaina.
1 Maui wildfire updates for Aug. 11: Death toll rises to 80; Limited access to West Maui closed due to unauthorized entry into restricted areas – Maui Now – August 11, 2023
2 Maui fires raise questions over warnings, death toll hits 80 – Reuters – August 11, 2023
3 Lahaina’s historic and cultural treasures go up in smoke – Star Advertiser – August 10, 2023
4 Governor: Official death toll stands at 93, but recovery teams are ‘discovering more tragedies’ – Hawaii News Now – August
Featured image credit: Maui County Fire Department
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