Follow along for live updates of wildfires that are racing across part of Maui in Hawaii, destroying sections of a historic town on the island and forcing some to flee to the relative safety of the ocean, where the Coast Guard rescued them. The fires forced evacuations in some areas, including the popular tourist spot of Lahaina Town. The National Weather Service says Hurricane Dora, which is passing south of the island chain at a safe distance, was partly to blame for strong winds driving the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
HAWAII GOVERNOR RETURNING TO ISLANDS, SAYS SOME LOSS OF LIFE IS EXPECTED
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, who was scheduled to return to Hawaii from personal travel on Aug. 15, instead planned to return immediately, his office said Wednesday. He was expected to be back Wednesday evening.
Green has been in contact with the White House, and is preparing to request emergency federal assistance sometime in the next two days, once he has a better idea of the damage, his office said in a news release.
Hundreds of families have been displaced and much of Lahaina on Maui has been destroyed, Green said in the statement.
“Heroic efforts by first responders have prevented many casualties from occurring, but some loss of life is expected,” he said. “Our entire emergency response team, including the Hawai‘i National Guard has mobilized and is being supported by FEMA.”
FRANTIC FAMILIES, LIMITED COMMUNICATION
With power outages and cellular service and phone lines down in some areas, many people are struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some posted messages on Facebook, Reddit and other sites hoping the social media grapevine would bring word of their loved ones.
Tiare Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, was frantically trying to reach her siblings Wednesday morning as winds whipped the island. They live in a residential area of Lahaina, near where a gas station exploded, Lawrence said.
“There’s no service so we can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said from the upcountry Maui community of Pukalani. “We’re still having hurricane-force winds.”
Her home was serving as a refuge for 14 cousins and uncles who fled the heat, smoke and flames in Lahaina.
“It was apocalyptic from what they explained,” she said.
Lahaina is often thought of as just a tourist town, but has “a very strong Hawaiian community,” Lawrence said.
“I’m just heartbroken. Everywhere, our memories,” she said. “Everyone’s homes. Everyone’s lives have tragically changed in the last 12 hours.”
The County of Maui and other local government officials turned to Facebook and Twitter to warn residents that the 911 system was down on parts of the island, and that they should call police departments directly if needed.
BURN PATIENTS FLOWN TO HONOLULU
Several burn patients from Maui were being treated at Straub Medical Center, the hospital said in a statement. The facility has the only specialized burn unit in Hawaii.
The Honolulu Emergency Services Department transported one woman in her 60s from Maui to the burn center, said department spokesperson Shayne Enright. The woman was in critical condition.
The department has also received reports of multiple patients being flown from Maui to Honolulu, Enright said.
HIGH WINDS SLOWING, BUT RAIN UNLIKELY
The high winds that fanned wildfires on both Maui and the Big Island slowed Wednesday morning, gusting between 35-50 mph, a said Tina Stall, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
The highest winds Tuesday on the Big Island peaked at 82 mph and on Maui they hit 62 mph.
The winds were caused by a high pressure system common to Hawaii, which produces the trade winds; and Hurricane Dora passing safely south of the islands. “It’s kind of squeezing things in between, so that’s what’s been causing the winds,” Stall said. The winds will continue to diminish through the day Wednesday and should reach normal levels overnight as both systems move west of Hawaii, she said.
There was little chance of rain to help firefighters Wednesday, she said. Western Maui is mostly in a moderate drought, while the Big Island has some level of drought, with the northern part of that island considered abnormally dry, Stall said.
An estimated 2,000 travelers, some newly arrived and others from canceled flights, were sheltering at Kahului Airport on Maui early Wednesday morning, the county announced on Facebook. Officials were discouraging non-essential travel, and some airlines were offering free rescheduling for people who planned to travel to Maui in the next few days.
Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Clair Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; and Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts.