Wind-fuelled wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui have killed six people, according to local officials, as flames force some residents to try to flee into the ocean.
Richard Bissen Jr — mayor of Maui County — announced the death toll in a morning news conference on Wednesday, as flames lashed areas like the historic Lahaina Town.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The United States Coast Guard said 12 people had to be rescued from the water off of Lahaina, as they fled the flames and smoke.
“People are jumping into the water to avoid the fire,” US Army Major General Kenneth Hara told Hawaii News Now. “The Coast Guard is providing support as we speak.”
The County of Maui also said in an alert on its website that all roads into Lahaina were closed due to the ongoing fires. United States President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he would order federal assets to the Hawaiian islands to help with the disaster response.
The National Weather Service (NWS) said the fires came as a result of a mix of conditions, including dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity. According to the University of Hawaii, large fires are a nearly annual occurrence in some parts of the Hawaiian archipelago, though the scope of these blazes is unusual.
Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 805km (500 miles), was partly to blame for gusts above 97 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour) that have fanned the flames, the weather service said.
The wind knocked out power as night fell, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters, and about 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early on Wednesday, according to the tracker poweroutage.us.
Dangerous fire conditions created by strong winds and low humidity were expected to last through Wednesday afternoon, the NWS said.
The wildfires in Hawaii are the latest in a series of severe weather events that have ravaged parts of the US and Canada so far this year, as out-of-control blazes, tornadoes and a relentless heatwave hit various parts of North America.
Poor air quality, which threatened to cause health issues for millions of Americans over the last few days, has lifted in many places, but air heavily laced with smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada lingered in scattered locations.
Experts have warned that extreme weather caused by climate change will likely make wildfires more devastating.
As Acting Governor on behalf of @govhawaii, I signed an emergency proclamation to activate the National Guard and authorize appropriate emergency actions to respond to the wildfires in Maui and Hawaiʻi Counties.
— Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke (@lgsylvialuke) August 9, 2023
Back in Hawaii, Sylvia Luke, the acting governor, signed an emergency proclamation on Tuesday to activate the National Guard to help respond to the fires.
“We are closely following the wildfires caused by the strong winds of Hurricane Dora,” Luke said in a statement shared on social media. “The safety of our residents is paramount,” she added.
Fire was widespread in Lahaina, including Front Street, an area of the town popular with tourists.
Traffic has been very heavy as people try to evacuate and officials asked people who weren’t in an evacuation area to shelter in place to avoid adding to the problem, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin told The Associated Press news agency early on Wednesday.
“This is so unprecedented,” Martin said, noting that multiple districts were affected. An emergency in the night is terrifying, she told the news agency, and the darkness makes it hard to gauge the extent of the damage.
“Right now, it is all-hands-on-deck and we are anxious for daybreak,” she said.
Fire crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the popular tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance with a fire that threatened about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch, a rural community with a population of more than 500 people on the Big Island, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
When the request was made, the fire had burned more than 243 hectares (600 acres) and was uncontained. Much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning that continued on Wednesday, and two other uncontrolled fires were burning on the Big Island and Maui, officials said.
In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 4.5sq km (1.7sq miles), Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.