Fires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated Maui and other parts of Hawaii on Wednesday, forcing some residents to flee for their lives and turning beloved tourist destinations on the tropical islands into flaming infernos.
Some Maui residents jumped into the ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them, according to a Maui County press release. The American Red Cross opened an evacuation center in Maui High School, the county said.
Official details on the extent of casualties and building damages were scant early on Wednesday morning, but panicked residents fleeing the flames posted videos and photos on social media showing apocalyptic clouds of smoke billowing up over formerly paradisiacal beaches and palm trees.
The situation in Hawaii mirrored scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe.
Scientists say that human-caused climate change – driven by fossil fuel use – is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events. They have long warned government officials to drastically reduce emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
Dustin Johnson, from San Diego, was in Lahaina, a residential and tourist area with a commercial district in West Maui, working for a charter boat company that takes tourists on two-hour tours from the Lahaina harbor.
“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it,” he told Reuters in an interview at the airport in Maui. “And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way.”
Business owner Alan Dickar told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser he wasn’t sure what remained of his three properties, including his Vintage European Posters gallery, which was a fixture of the now decimated Front Street in Lahaina. The town was home to about 13,000 residents, according to the newspaper.
Dickar followed county orders and evacuated with his two cats before flames engulfed the main strip of shops and restaurants.
“Everyone who comes to Maui, the one place they go is Front Street,” he told the paper, describing the central two blocks of the street as the “economic heart” of the island. “I don’t know what’s left,” he added.
The National Weather Service said the current brush fires arise from a mix of conditions: dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity. According to the University of Hawaii, large fires are an almost annual occurrence in some parts of the Hawaiian archipelago, though the scope of these fires is unusual.
In an MSNBC report Wednesday afternoon, a Lahaina resident reported that “every boat was burning” in the harbor and that “the harbor is gone.”
By Tuesday night, hundreds of acres had already burned and roads and schools had closed in parts of Hawaii and Maui Counties, according to an emergency proclamation issued by acting Hawaii Governor Sylvia Luke. Hawaii County encompasses the Big Island, which lies south of Maui.
In Maui, the fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous Upcountry region, the proclamation said.
By early Wednesday, Maui County had closed all roads into and in Lahaina Town. West Maui was closed to everyone except emergency workers and those evacuating the area, including Kahekili Highway, according to its social media postings.
Maui County officials moved several evacuation sites at local civic centers farther away from Lahaina and other areas affected by the fires to new sites, including the Maui High School, as precautionary measures.
Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin told USA TODAY on Wednesday that fires were also affecting Kihei, home to a mix of residential homes, condominiums, short-term vacation rentals and visitor facilities in South Maui.
Officials say the winds from Hurricane Dora have fanned the flames across the Island state. Hurricane Dora was about 795 miles south-south west of Hawaii as of 5 a.m. local time, the National Hurricane Center said.
But gale warnings remained in effect for all of the Hawaiian islands, according to the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Honolulu, with high winds of 45 mph with wind gusts of 60 mph possible.
The National Weather Service in Hawaii also issued a “red flag warning” advising residents of conditions conducive to starting fires or spreading of existing fires in “most leeward areas of all Hawaiian Islands” as of 3 a.m. local time on Wednesday.