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Maui fires death toll rises to at least 55, hundreds evacuated; Biden approves disaster declaration

Dozens killed in Maui wildfires
Dozens killed in Maui wildfires 03:37

Update: Read our latest coverage here.

The death toll from fast-moving wildfires on Hawaii's Maui island rose Thursday to at least 55 people, officials said. One blaze, which nearly destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, was said to be 80% contained earlier in the day.

Officials warned the death toll will likely continue to go up, with multiple fires on the island still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.

"What we saw is likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history," Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in a news conference Thursday afternoon, adding that "hundreds of homes" have been destroyed. 

Officials were unable to provide an estimate on the number of people missing. 

"Honestly, we don't know," Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters. 

Pelletier pleaded for patience for Lahaina residents who wanted to return home, indicating it could be weeks before neighborhoods are reopened.

"But we have to respect the fact that we've got loved ones in that earth, and we've got to do the right thing to get them out the right way," he said. 

Search and rescue teams with cadaver dogs were being brought in from California and Washington to assist in the search for human remains, FEMA regional administrator Robert Fenton disclosed. 

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said large swaths of Lahaina had been completely destroyed, with much of the city without water or power.  

"Until you see the devastation, it's difficult to describe," he said. "But there's lots of people that will need a lot of help."

Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said all four wildfires that broke on Maui Tuesday were still burning. 

"None of the fires are 100% contained right now," Ventura said. "Additionally, we have many small fires in between these fires."

Ventura described the burn areas as "very, very hazardous." 

"Things are falling every minute around us," he said. "There have been people hurt by falling telephone poles and such."

Bissen previously said that officials hadn't yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.  

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara with the Hawaii State Department of Defense said that plans were being made to activate both active duty and National Guard soldiers for response and recovery efforts.  

Police have urged people to stay away from Lahaina "due to biohazard and safety concerns" and said arrangements would be made to let residents back into the area at a later date.

Evacuations were continuing Thursday with officials providing buses to take people from the disaster area on the western part of the island to a shelter or Maui's Kahului Airport. Maui officials said 1,400 people stayed at the airport overnight Wednesday while waiting for flights off the island.

An aerial view shows damage along the coast of Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, August 9, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from social media video.
An aerial view shows damage along the coast of Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, August 9, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from social media video. Richard Olsten/Air Maui Helicopters/via Reuters

Thousands to require emergency housing

President Biden approved on Thursday approved a federal disaster declaration for Maui. 

"The federal government will be supporting our full recovery," Green said Thursday, explaining that emergency housing will need to be provided for "thousands of people." 

The move makes federal funding available to people on the island affected by the fires.

"Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers — every asset we have will be available to them," Mr. Biden said during an event in Salt Lake City marking the first anniversary of a veterans benefits law. "They've seen their homes, their businesses destroyed, and some have lost loved ones, and it's not over yet."

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Hawaii on Friday to meet with state and local officials about ongoing recovery efforts, the agency announced Thursday evening.

The Coast Guard said Thursday it had rescued 17 people from the water and located 40 survivors ashore. The Coast Guard currently has no reports of missing persons in the water.

Thirty guardsmen are assisting Maui police with traffic control, and 16 roads are still closed on Maui, Jeff Hickman, public affairs director for the state's Department of Defense, said Thursday afternoon. 

About 10,700 customers in West Maui were without power as of Thursday evening, as access continues to be limited due to safety concerns, Hawaiian Electric said. "We recognize the gravity and hardship of having prolonged outages during these challenging times and we are starting damage assessments to determine restorations in West Maui areas," utility spokesperson Shayna Decker said in a statement.

Green, who was traveling out-of-state when the fires broke out, but had returned Thursday to survey the damage, issued an emergency proclamation that allows out-of-state doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to deliver health care services on the Island of Maui for an emergency period.

The four wildfires that erupted Tuesday were initially spread by winds from Hurricane Dora as it passed far to the south.

Lahaina residents describe racing to escape fire

Terrifying images out of a Maui neighborhood showed home after home swallowed by fast-moving flames Tuesday night as residents scrambled to escape.

Smoke and flames rise in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 8, 2023, in this still image from video obtained from social media.
Smoke and flames rise in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 8, 2023, in this still image from video obtained from social media. Jeff Melichar/TMX/via Reuters

The wildfires took Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood.

Amid the chaos, Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News on Thursday that there wasn't any warning about the fire and they left with only what they were wearing.

"The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbor's yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out," Kaleiopu said.

He and a group of about a dozen family members are staying with a cousin in a safer part of the island, and he's seen in aerial footage that there's nothing for him to go back to.

"All of my neighborhood is completely destroyed, my grandparents' house completely destroyed, my mother's house, my brother's house," Kaleiopu said. "Everyone that I know, I've seen their houses just burned down to piles of ash. There's nothing recognizable in the rubble, and I wouldn't know what I was looking at if I were to make it back home, or at least to where home used to be."

"No warning": Hawaii resident describes harrowing escape from wildfires 06:57

William Bugle, 76, told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti he was burned on his arm when the roof blew off his house and he was hit by red-hot shingles.

"It went from like nothing to, like, I felt this heat, this tremendous heat," Bugle said.

Flames forced people to dive into the water for safety. 

A wildfire burns on the island of Maui near an intersection in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 9, 2023.
A wildfire burns on the island of Maui near an intersection in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 9, 2023. Zeke Kalua/County of Maui/Handout via Reuters

Tourists asked to stay away from Maui

Hawaiian authorities urged visitors to stay away from Maui, discouraging any nonessential travel. The Hawaiian Tourism Authority estimated that more than 14,000 visitors were moved off the island Wednesday, with an estimated additional 14,500 to be moved off the island on Thursday, to either "return home or continue with their vacation elsewhere in Hawaii."

As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed 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 harbor were scorched, and gray 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."

An emotional Lahaina resident, Kekoa Lansford, told CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV Front Street is "completely burned."

He said the decimation on Maui is a "nationwide issue at this point...We need help. A lot of help. We got to get people down here. We need funds allocated for fixing our home(s). We are out here working."

Wildfires driven by high winds hit Hawaiian island of Maui
Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 9, 2023.  Dustin Johnson/Handout via Reuters

State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement 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.

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

More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.

The scope of the devastation to Maui 

Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it's tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.

Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.

"The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don't know what's left," he said.

Dickar took video of flames engulfing the main strip before escaping with three friends and two cats.

"Every significant thing I owned burned down today," he said. "I'll be OK. I got out safely."

A charred boat lies on the scorched waterfront after a wildfire devastated the Maui city of Lahaina
A charred boat lies in the scorched waterfront after wildfires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated Maui's city of Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 9, 2023. Mason Jarvi/Handout via Reuters

Dickar told CBS News' Patrick Torphy, "Maui can't handle this. ... A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes...This is going to be devastating for Maui."

With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.

Green Thursday, upon his return to the state, posted a video to social media from Lahaina. 

"We probably have well over a thousand buildings which have been destroyed," Green said in the video. 

Wildfires were also burning on Hawaii's Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there. Roth said firefighters extinguished some roof fires and there were continuing flareups of one fire near the Mauna Kea Resorts.

The National Weather Service canceled its red flag wildfires warning and high winds advisory for all of Hawaii on Wednesday night.

Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires. A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

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

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