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Wildfires on Hawaii's Maui island kill at least 6 as blazes force people to flee

Wildfire evacuations underway in Hawaii
Mass evacuations underway in parts of Hawaii as fast-moving wildfires spread 03:39

Update: The death toll for the Maui fires has increased. View our latest coverage here.

At least six people were killed on the Hawaiian island of Maui as wind-fueled wildfires tore through the area, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. announced. Hundreds of buildings have also been damaged or destroyed. 

"We are still in a search and rescue mode, and so I don't know what will happen to that number," Bissen said.

The mayor didn't provide details about the circumstances surrounding the deaths, saying the death toll was confirmed just before a news conference with officials. He said several other people were unaccounted for but may be people who are in vehicles who haven't gone into a shelter.

Over 2,100 people were using the five shelters that have been opened on the island, and some of them — along with a number of hotels — lost power, Bissen said.

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, August 9, 2023.
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, August 9, 2023. Mason Jarvi/Handout via Reuters

Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke told reporters that some shelters were "overrun" and tourists, who were still arriving on Maui Wednesday morning, were discouraged from going to the island.

"This is not a safe place to be," Luke said. "... We have resources that are being taxed."

There was one bit of encouraging news: The National Weather Service canceled its Red Flag wildfire warning and high wind advisory for all of Hawaii Wednesday night.

The blazes drove people to jump into a harbor to escape flames and smoke and forced people to evacuate earlier on Wednesday, authorities said. The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people in the town of Lahaina who turned to its harbor for refuge, and all were in stable condition. Officials said Wednesday that hospitals on the island were treating burn and smoke inhalation patients.

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

Fire was widespread in Lahaina, a tourist town with a population of 12,000 on the northwestern tip of Maui. 

Maui county officials reported Wednesday afternoon that at least 271 structures have been damaged or destroyed in the wildfires in Lahaina.

"Widespread damage to the West Maui town, the harbor and surrounding areas are being documented," the county said in a statement. 

Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling and was expected to be back in the state Wednesday night, said in a statement that much of the town "has been destroyed and hundreds of local families have been displaced."

Maui County tweeted that multiple roads were closed with a warning: "Do NOT go to Lahaina town." Traffic has been very heavy as people try to evacuate and officials asked people who weren't in an evacuation area to shelter in place to avoid adding to the traffic, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin told the Associated Press in a phone interview early Wednesday.

Officials issued an island-wide request Wednesday morning for people to conserve water to reduce demand and extend existing supplies as firefighters battled the blazes.

Photos posted by the county overnight showed a line of flames blazing across an intersection and leaping above buildings in the town center that dates to the 1700s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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, August 9, 2023. Zeke Kalua/County of Maui/Handout via Reuters

Six patients were flown from Maui to the island of Oahu on Tuesday night, said Speedy Bailey, regional director for Hawaii Life Flight, an air-ambulance company. Three of them had critical burns and were taken to Straub Medical Center's burn unit, he said. The others were taken to other Honolulu hospitals. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, he said. He had not heard of any deaths.

Authorities said earlier Wednesday that a firefighter in Maui was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

Luke had told CNN that the hospital system on the island "was overburdened with burn patients, people suffering from inhalation."

"The reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support," Luke said.

"911 is down. Cell service is down. Phone service is down. And that's been part of the problem," she said.

Luke, the state's lieutenant governor, issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Green and activated the Hawaii National Guard.

Luke issued another proclamation Wednesday afternoon strongly discouraging all nonessential travel to Maui. The proclamation also gives Hawaii's emergency management agency the authority to order mandatory evacuations of civilian populations. 

A wildfire is seen on the Hawaiian island of Maui, August 8, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video.
A wildfire is seen on the Hawaiian island of Maui, August 8, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Courtesy of Dominika Durisova via Reuters

Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights were canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said.

Front Street, a shopping and dining area of Lahaina popular with tourists, was badly hit by the flames.

"Buildings on both sides were engulfed," Front Street business owner Alan Dickar told CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV. "There were no fire trucks at that point; I think the fire department was overwhelmed."

He 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."

Flames from a wildfire as seen tearing through businesses in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 8, 2023. Some people jumped into the harbor to escape the flames, authorities said. Alan Dickar

The wildfire in Lahaina was one of many in Hawaii fanned by strong winds that burned multiple structures, forced evacuations and caused power outages in several communities as firefighters struggled to reach some areas that were cut off by downed trees and power lines. Some people reported having trouble evacuating due to gridlock, smoke and encroaching flames.  

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles, was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph that knocked out power as night fell, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters. Dangerous fire conditions created by strong winds and low humidity were expected to last through Wednesday afternoon, the weather service said.

The Central Pacific Hurricane Center said Dora was a Category 4 hurricane as of late Wednesday morning.

"I have ordered all available Federal assets on the Islands to help with response," President Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening. "The Hawaiian National Guard has mobilized Chinook Helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue on the Island of Maui. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Third Fleets are supporting response and rescue efforts. The U.S. Marines are providing Black Hawk Helicopters to fight the fires on the Big Island. The Department of Transportation is working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from Maui, and the Department of the Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture stand ready to support post fire recovery efforts."  

In Lahaina, a honeymooner made an unlikely request on social media:  

"This is so unprecedented," Martin said, noting that multiple districts were affected. An emergency in the night is terrifying, she said, and the darkness makes it hard to gauge the extent of the damage. 

Noting the rise in donations and fundraising to help victims of the wildfires, Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez warned against "bad actors who try to take advantage of people's goodwill." Lopez urged people to donate to trusted, well-known charities and verify that recipients of donations are legitimate.

Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, told CBS News that the state's fire issues have been "increasing over the last couple of decades, and our policies, our infrastructure, our preparedness, none of that has caught up with the level of threat that we face."

Pickett said the increasing frequency of droughts, hurricanes, invasive species of plant life and human behavior have all contributed to this rising threat.

"We have invasive species that have come into our island archipelago that cover now 26% of our state," she said. "And so we have these invasive, fire-loving, very highly ignitable grasses that have invaded our landscape. ...And then we have human behaviors that aren't quite as fire aware as they are in other fire-prone locations — it's just a recipe for more and more wildfires."

The fires weren't only raging on Maui.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance with a fire that threatened about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch, a rural community with a population of more than 500 on the Big Island, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

When the request was made, the fire had burned more than 600 acres and was uncontained. Two other uncontrolled fires were burning on the Big Island and Maui, officials said.

Fire crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the popular tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region. In West Maui 911 service was not available and residents were directed to call the police department.

Because of the wind gusts, helicopters weren't able to dump water on the fires from the sky — or gauge more precise fire sizes — and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin said.

More than 12,500 customers in Hawaii were without power Wednesday afternoon, according to

"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," Martin said.

Winds were recorded at 80 mph in inland Maui and one fire that was believed to be contained earlier Tuesday flared up hours later with the big winds, she added.

"The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house," Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said.

Heavy smoke rises from wildfire in distance in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 8, 2023. paele_kulani

Hurricane Dora was complicating matters for firefighters in an already dry season.

Hawaii is sandwiched between high pressure to the north and a low pressure system associated with Dora, explained Jeff Powell, a meteorologist in Honolulu. The dryness and the gusts "make a dangerous fire situation so that fires that do exist can spread out of control very rapidly," he said.

"It's kind of because of Hurricane Dora, but it's not a direct result," he said, calling the fires a "peripheral result" of the hurricane's winds.

In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1,100 acres, Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.

Upcountry Maui resident Caroline Lebrec was among those forced to evacuate and told KGMB-TV she could see flames advancing as she headed to an emergency shelter. "There were branches falling down on us, small ones but enough that I sped up," she said.

All of Maui's public schools except for one were closed Wednesday, the state Education Department announced.

The Red Cross was opening shelters on Maui and the Big Island.

"We're trying to protect homes in the community," Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of evacuating about 400 homes in four communities in the northern part of the island. As of Tuesday, the roof of one house caught on fire, he said.

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 fires in the U.S. mainland.

Fires were rare in Hawaii and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.

A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also was dealing with power outages, downed power lines and traffic problems, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

-Agence France-Presse contributed reporting.

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