Kuala Lumpur Post


Maui wildfires death toll rises to 53

KAHULUI — The death toll from a wildfire that has turned the resort town of Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island into smouldering ruins rose to 53 yesterday, Maui County said.

At least three major fires broke out on Maui on Tuesday night, cutting off the western side of the island and the historic city of Lahaina, where at least 271 structures were destroyed or damaged.

Many more people suffered burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries. Search and rescue efforts continue, and thousands of people have fled the area, into emergency shelters and off the island.

“As firefighting efforts continue, 17 additional fatalities have been confirmed today amid the active Lahaina fire. This brings the death toll to 53 people,” Maui County said in a statement.

The fires reduced entire neighbourhoods to ashes on the western side of the US island. Lahaina is one of Maui’s prime attractions, drawing 2 million tourists to the island each year, or about 80 per cent of the island’s visitors.

The wildfires took most of Lahaina’s residents and visitors by surprise when they broke out, forcing some jump into the ocean to escape the fast-moving inferno.

Nicoangelo Knickerbocker, a 21-year-old resident of Lahaina, had just awoken from a nap on Tuesday evening when he saw the fires burning through his hometown. His mother and sister fled, while he and some and friends went to neighbours’ houses, helping people pack belongings and fruitlessly trying to stem the flames with garden hoses.

“It was so hot all around me, I felt like my shirt was about to catch on fire,” he said from one of the four emergency shelters opened on the island. The shelters are housing more than 2,100 people, Hawaii News Now said.

Knickerbocker heard cars and a gas station explode, and soon after fled the town with his father, bringing with them only the clothes they were wearing and the family dog. “It sounded like a war was going on,” he said.

At least 20 people suffered serious burns, and several were airlifted to Oahu for medical treatment, while more than 11,000 visitors were evacuated from Maui, Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation said late on Wednesday.

Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully, he said.

Most of the roughly 400 evacuees at the War Memorial shelter on Thursday morning had arrived in shock, with an “empty look,” said Dr. Gerald Tariao Montano, a paediatrician who volunteered to work a six-hour shift on Wednesday night.

“Some haven’t fully grasped that they lost everything,” he said. He pleaded for donations of clothes, supplies, food, baby formula and diapers.

The fires were the worst disaster to befall Hawaii since 1960, one year after it became a US state, when a tsunami killed 61 people.

The fate of some of Lahaina’s cultural treasures remains unclear. The historic 18-metre-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood was still standing, though some of its boughs appeared charred, according to a Reuters witness.

“We will need to rebuild the entirety of Lahaina, I believe,” Governor Green told KHON 2, a local Fox affiliate.

US President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, allowing affected individuals and business owners to apply for federal housing and economic recovery grants.

The cause of the Maui wildfires has yet to be determined, officials said, but the National Weather Service said dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity fuelled them.

Wildfires occur every year in Hawaii, according to Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, but this year’s fires are burning faster and bigger than usual.

Three separate blazes

Elsewhere on the island, fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland Upcountry region, and Kihei in South Maui.

Scenes of fiery devastation have become all too familiar elsewhere in the world this summer. Wildfires, often caused by record-setting heat, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe. In western Canada, a series of unusually severe fires sent clouds of smoke over vast swaths of the US, polluting the air.

Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that countries must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.

The Maui blazes began on Tuesday night as powerful winds from Hurricane Dora, hundreds of miles to the southwest, fanned the flames. By Thursday, the strong winds had largely abated.

About 11,000 homes and businesses were without power on Maui, which has a year-round population of 165,000, according to the tracking service PowerOutage.US. — Reuters

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