Wildfires fanned by winds have killed at least 36 people and devastated much of the resort city Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island on Wednesday, forcing thousands to evacuate as some fled into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames.
Multiple neighbourhoods were burned to the ground as the western side of the island was nearly cut off with only one highway open as officials told of widespread devastation to Lahaina, its harbor and surrounding areas.
Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, citing official reports from flyovers conducted by the US Civil Air Patrol and the Maui fire department.
With firefighters battling three major blazes, western Maui was closed to all but emergency workers and evacuees.
The fires, which started Tuesday night, also scorched parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. The state said thousands of acres burned.
The cause in Maui had yet to be determined but the National Weather Service said the fires were fueled by a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds and low humidity.
Officials said the winds from Hurricane Dora fanned the flames across the state. The storm was about 1,380km (857 miles) southwest of Honolulu as of 11am local time (21:00 GMT), the National Hurricane Center said.
At least 4,000 tourists were trying to leave western Maui, said Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation. Though at least 16 roads were closed, the Maui airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island, Sniffen said.
Panicked evacuees posted images on social media showing clouds of smoke billowing over once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.
The situation in Hawaii recalled scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe, and western Canada suffered unusually severe fires.
Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that government officials must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.