Wildfire-ravaged Maui has thousands of Filipino residents
KAHULUI, Hawaii — The death toll from a wildfire that swept through the picturesque resort town of Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island has risen to 36, authorities said, as the blaze left smoldering ruins in its wake and forced thousands to flee the devastation.
There are 4,560 Filipinos in devastated Lahaina, or 39% of 12,000 total number of residents. The 2015 County Data Book shows Maui’s Filipino population at nearly 28,000, or about 17% of the 163,000 residents. As of press time, there are no available reports on their condition resulting from the conflagration.
Video footage showed neighborhoods and businesses razed and vehicles burnt to a crisp across the western side of the island as the wildfires cut off most roads out of Lahaina, the largest tourist destination on Maui and home to multiple large hotels.
Maui resident Dustin Kaleiopu on Thursday said his family, now on the other side of Maui, had only had minutes to evacuate and lost two generational family homes to the flames.
“There are still so many people that we are unable get in touch with, and that still remains true for many families here,” Kaleiopu said in an interview on NBC News’ “Today” program. “Everyone I know is now homeless.”
Such scenes of devastation have become all too familiar elsewhere in the world this summer. Wildfires, often caused by record-setting heat, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe. In western Canada, a series of unusually severe fires sent clouds of smoke over vast swathes of the US, polluting the air.
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.
On Maui, firefighters were battling three separate blazes on the island, officials said late on Wednesday night, without providing further details.
Officials said on Wednesday that the fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous Upcountry region. Fires were also affecting Kihei in South Maui.
Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke told a press conference late on Wednesday that officials were still assessing the damage.
“It will be a long road to recovery,” she said.
Distant hurricane fanned flames
The blazes began on Tuesday night as powerful winds from Hurricane Dora, hundreds of miles to the southwest, fanned the flames.
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.
The wildfires spread quickly through populated areas of the city of 13,000 people. Some people were forced to jump into the Pacific Ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the US Coast Guard to rescue them, according to a Maui County press release.
Others raced to evacuate as clouds of smoke billowed over once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.
“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it. And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way,” said Dustin Johnson, who was in Lahaina Harbor working for a charter boat company that offers two-hour tours. He spoke from Kahului Airport, normally a 25-minute drive east of Lahaina.
Officials said they were looking into witness reports of people being trapped in their cars.
More than 11,000 travelers were evacuated from Maui, Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation said late on Wednesday. Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island, Sniffen had said earlier in the day.
A mass bus evacuation to the Kahului Airport for visitors in West Maui was to resume at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, officials said.
Southwest Airlines said on Thursday that it was increasing flights to Hawaii due to the evacuation efforts.
The National Guard, US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were mobilized, while the US Department of Transportation aided evacuation efforts, Biden said.
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.