Hawaii: At least 36 killed in raging wildfires as locals dive into sea to escape flames

At least 36 people have died after wildfires ripped through the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii, officials have said.

Wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once-busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood.

Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.

Follow live updates of the wildfires in Maui here.

Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.

Footage shows locals desperately jumping into the ocean as flames and smoke spread to the harbour.

“We had to push off to escape the heat and ash. The harbour quickly filled with black smoke. We made it safe to Lanai,” Brantin Stevens, who filmed the video, said.

More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers. Another 2,000 travelers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were canceled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.

Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then a fire started up on a hillside.

“It just ripped through everything with amazing speed,” he said, adding it was “like a blowtorch.”

Smoke and flames rise in Lahaina, Maui County, Hawaii, U.S., August 8, 2023 in this still image from video obtained from social media


Wildfire roars through Hawaii’s historic Lahaina town


“We got out in the nick of time yesterday,” recalled Lahaina resident Ke*eaumoku Kapu.

He was at the cultural center he runs in the historic section of town Tuesday, tying down lose objects in the wind, when his wife showed up at around 4 p.m. and said they needed to evacuate. “Right at that time, things got crazy. The wind started picking up,” he said.

Two blocks away they saw fire and billowing smoke. Kapu, his wife and a friend jumped into his pickup truck. “By the time we turned around, our building was on fire. It was that quick.”

They didn’t have time to pack up anything at their cultural center, Na Aikane o Maui, where they “had years and years of research material, artifacts,” he said.

They drove south to Maalaea, where they spent the night in the truck.

“Every time the wind blows, oh man, it’s like reliving it again,” Kapu said.

This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui


State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement on Wednesday that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of an elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.

He said: “Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus — on Front Street in Lahaina — sustained extensive fire and structural damage.

“The department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week.”

The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape flames and smoke, including two children.

Aerial footage shows Lahaina destroyed by blaze


The fires are the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the world this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed on Wednesday, allowing pilots to view the full scope of the devastation. Aerial video from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine.

Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbour were scorched and smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.

“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that,” said Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company. “We had tears in our eyes.”

A third fire raging in the inland mountainous region of Kula is yet to be contained. Dozens of residents were evacuated overnight from the area after brush fires were reported in the Olinda Rd, Auli’i Drive and Hanamu Rd areas.

The American Red Cross has set up emergency shelters at Kihei, Lahaina and Pukalani.

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