At least six people have died in the wildfires that are ravaging parts of Maui, torching entire communities to the ground and leaving behind apocalyptic scenes of ash and debris.
Richard Bissen Jr., the island’s mayor, announced the death toll in a Wednesday news conference, but did not offer further details about the deaths and said authorities are still conducting search and rescue operations. So far, more than a dozen people had to be rescued from the ocean, among them two young children, Maui County officials said.
Several people are also unaccounted for, Bissen added. And many community members have been gripped with anxiety for their loved ones’ safety after flames began swallowing neighborhoods.
“I have not slept in over 24 hours. I spent all night, all through the morning scrolling through my phone looking for family members,” Dustin Kaleiopu, who lost his home to the fire, told CNN’s Erin Burnett Wednesday.
In the early Wednesday morning hours, Kaleiopu and his grandfather awoke to howling winds and quickly saw the blaze approaching their home. They fled shortly after 4 a.m.
When Kaleiopu’s father went to the home an hour later to check that they had safely evacuated, there was nothing left.
“Our entire street was burned to the ground,” Kaleiopu said.
The fires on Maui started spreading widely Tuesday – fueled in part by violent winds from Hurricane Dora, churning more than 800 miles away – decimating homes and businesses, launching urgent rescue missions, knocking out power and communication services, and even forcing some people into the ocean to avoid being burned.
On Wednesday afternoon, officials on the island urged visitors to leave Lahaina and Maui “as soon as possible,” reporting a mass bus evacuation was ongoing and there were available flight seats.
“As a result of three fires that have occurred that are continuing here on our island we have had 13 evacuations from different neighborhoods and towns, we’ve had 16 road closures, we’ve opened five shelters,” Bissen said, noting more than 2,000 people were staying at shelters.
“Local people have lost everything,” said James Kunane Tokioka, the state’s business, economic development and tourism director, at the news conference. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals and it’s devastating.”
Scores of structures on Maui have been burned to the ground, the mayor said. Most of them were in the historic town of Lahaina, a touristic and economic hub on the west side of the island.
It’s where Claire Kent’s home was too.
“It happened so fast,” she told CNN. “I heard the first explosions of the gas stations exploding and then I saw the black smoke a couple streets away and within half an hour we were out the door.”
Kent was at a friend’s home and never got to pick up anything from her house before they evacuated.
“We didn’t even realize we weren’t going to get to go back,” she said. But within an hour, the inferno had consumed the neighborhood, and had swallowed cars on the road Kent and her friends were using to evacuate.
It was, she said, “like something out of a horror movie.”
Bissen said helicopters were using water drops over Maui Wednesday to help suppress the flames. The fires are still not contained.
Meanwhile, crews on Hawaii’s Big Island were also working Wednesday to contain multiple brushfires there, including a blaze that was threatening structures in one community and was 60% contained, according to fire officials.
Hawaii’s governor, who was on a personal trip this week, said he was rushing back to the state Wednesday.
911 and cell service disrupted
Search and rescue efforts in Maui Wednesday were made even more complicated after the wildfires cut off power and disrupted 911 and other communication services in parts of the island, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told CNN.
“911 is down. Cell service is down. Phone service is down,” Luke said. “That’s been part of the problem, that Maui County has not been able to communicate with residents on the west side, Lahaina side.”
Satellite phones have been the only reliable way to get in touch with some areas, including hotels, the lieutenant governor said.
The island is home to about 117,000 people.
“Our hospital system on Maui, they are overburdened with burn patients, people suffering from inhalation,” she said. “The reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support because Maui hospital cannot do extensive burn treatment.”
Thousands of animals were also displaced by the fires, the Maui Humane Society said in a Facebook post, pleading with residents who can to foster pets to make space for more animals, including some who may be injured.
The disaster also has wiped out power to more than 12,000 homes and businesses in Maui, according to PowerOutage.us.
Video footage shot by Air Maui Helicopter Tours over parts of the Lahaina area shows entire blocks were decimated by the flames, with little but ruins and ashes left, and everything still engulfed in a thick, hazy smoke.
“We were not prepared for what we saw. It was heartbreaking, it looked like an area that had been bombed in the war,” Richie Olsten, the director of operations for the tour agency, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Wednesday. “It’s just destroyed.”
“In my 52 years of flying on Maui, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Olsten added.
Tourists are being discouraged from going to Maui, Luke told reporters Wednesday.
“Today we signed another emergency proclamation which will discourage tourists from going to Maui,” she said. “Even as of this morning, planes were landing on Maui with tourists. This is not a safe place to be.”
What the weather looks like next
Dora, a powerful Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph, was about 860 miles southwest of Honolulu Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect.
The state likely experienced its most intense winds Tuesday, seeing wind gusts reaching up to 80 mph, said meteorologist Ian Morrison with the National Weather Service office in Honolulu. But those effects are quickly dwindling.
Wind speeds lowered Wednesday and are expected to further decrease Thursday and Friday, according to Morrison.
“The worst of the winds are certainly behind them as the wind gusts will decrease into the 20 to 30 mph range on Thursday,” CNN Meteorologist Taylor Ward said. “Still breezy, but much better than the 50 to 80 mph gusts that were observed Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning.”
“Dropping winds doesn’t mean the fires will go away,” Morrison warned, but added the drop will likely help firefighters working to contain the blazes. Little rain is expected on the Big Island and Maui this week, and it will be limited to the eastern side of the island, Ward said.
CNN’s Taylor Romine, Chris Boyette, Sara Smart, Joe Sutton, Raja Razek, Caroll Alvarado, Derek Van Dam, Robert Shackelford, Aya Elamroussi, Kara Nelson, Cheri Mossburg, Jennifer Gray, Eli Masket, Ross Levitt and Kelly McCleary contributed to this report.
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