As many as 53 people have been killed and several thousand were forced to flee as wind-fuelled wildfires devastated much of the resort town of Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island, in what residents described as an “apocalypse”.
The deaths reported on Thursday make the blazes one of the most deadly wildfire incidents in the United States in recent years.
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“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 early on Thursday. By the afternoon, county officials had raised the death toll to 53.
Officials warned that the number of fatalities could still rise, as the fires continue to burn and teams spread out to search devastated areas.
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 desperate residents jumping into the ocean to escape.
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 barely made it out,” Lahaina resident Kamuela Kawaakoa told The Associated Press news agency.
Kawaakoa and partner Liulia Yasso described fleeing with their 6-year-old son as the bushes around them caught fire.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” 34-year-old Kawaakoa said.
Another resident who escaped, Mason Jarvi, likened the scene to “an apocalypse”.
“We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp,” Jarvi said.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime”.
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement.
“In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”
More than 270 buildings have been damaged or destroyed in Lahaina.
Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, told Al Jazeera the devastated areas resembled 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.
It’s tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai’i — a place that’s so special to so many of us. Michelle and I are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down.
If you’d like to help, you can do so here.…
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 10, 2023
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.
“But there’s still enough wind to whip these fires up. That’s why they are concerned in Lahaina,” Huff said.
While wildfires are not unusual in Hawaii, experts say climate change has increased the likelihood of severe events.
The dry weather of the past few weeks created the fuel, and once ignited, the high winds stoked the flames, Thomas Smith, an associate professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told AP.
Wildfires in Maui prompted evacuations overnight.
This view shows the fires growing rapidly near sunset. pic.twitter.com/OtdUKXXo2v
— CIRA (@CIRA_CSU) August 9, 2023
“The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer,” Smith said.
Barack Obama, the only Hawaiian-born US president, posted a link to a disaster relief fund on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.
“It’s tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai’i – a place that’s so special to so many of us,” Obama wrote, adding that he and former first lady Michelle Obama were “thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down”.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii and ordered federal aid sent to the state.