Wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui island: Evacuations, high winds fueling flames, emergency services down — here's what we know

The Big Island and Maui's town of Lahaina have been affected by wildfires fanned by Hurricane Dora’s powerful winds.

At least six people were killed on the island of Maui on Wednesday after ferocious winds caused by Hurricane Dora in part fueled devastating wildfires across Hawaii, officials said.

Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said "we are still in a search and rescue mode," and added that several people were unaccounted for.

Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation after what she called the “unprecedented wildfires,” which started on Tuesday, continued to spread on the islands of Hawaii (known as the Big Island) and Maui. “The safety of our residents is paramount, and this emergency proclamation will activate the Hawaiʻi National Guard to support emergency responders in the impacted communities,” Luke said in a statement. The National Guard was immediately activated.

As the fires continued into Wednesday, Maui’s hospitals became overwhelmed with patients suffering from fire-related injuries and illnesses. Schools were shut around the island and thousands of residents were left without power after dozens of utility poles were downed.

What caused the wildfires?

Wildfires were recorded on Hawaii's Big Island and Maui. (Yahoo News)
Wildfires were recorded on Hawaii's Big Island and Maui. (Yahoo News) (Yahoo News)

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the wildfires, but Jeff Powell, a meteorologist in Honolulu, said they were sparked “kind of because of Hurricane Dora, but it’s not a direct result.”

Hurricane Dora, which is expected to pass western Johnston Island on Wednesday, passed 700 miles south of Honolulu and created winds of 130 mph on Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

The National Weather Services warned of wind speeds as high as 60 mph and alerted those in the affected areas to expect power outages and difficulty traveling.

A wildfire burns on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
A wildfire burns in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui on Wednesday. (Zeke Kalua/County of Maui via Reuters) (via REUTERS)

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The NWS said that “very dry conditions” and “potentially damaging easterly winds” would continue the “dangerous fire weather conditions” into Wednesday afternoon. “The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Maui County fire assistant chief Jeff Giesea said.

“The fact that we have wildfires in multiple areas as a result of indirectly from a hurricane is unprecedented; it's something that Hawaii residents and the state have not experienced,” Luke said.

Wildfires burn land, damage homes

Smoke and flames from raging wildfires fill the air.
Smoke and flames from raging wildfires fill the air on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Hawaii. (Alan Dickar/AP) (AP)

Swaths of land on the Big Island and Maui, as well as town buildings and infrastructure, have been damaged from the fires. Videos shared on social media show parts of the historic town of Lahaina in Maui County, a community that is home to 12,000 people, engulfed in flames. A dozen Lahaina residents were forced to escape the fires by jumping into the surrounding sea. The U.S. Coast Guard launched a rescue operation to save those in the water.

“Multiple structures have burned and multiple evacuations are in place, as firefighter crews continue battling brush and structure fires in Upcountry and Lahaina areas,” county officials said.

In the last 24 hours, patients, including one firefighter, suffering from fire-related illnesses and emergencies have packed hospitals in Maui. Strong winds from the hurricane have cut off 911 emergency and cellphone services, Luke said.

A wildfire seen from a distance.
A wildfire on Maui, Hawaii. (Dominika Durisova/Reuters) (DOMINIKA DURISOVA via REUTERS)

At least 10 schools on the island have closed following the continued spread of brush fires while one, located in Central Maui, remains open as an evacuation shelter. According to PowerOutage.us, more than 14,000 in Hawaii are still without electricity.

"It's definitely one of the more challenging days for our island, given that it's multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas," Mahina Martin, a spokesperson from Maui County, said.