Pacific | Hawai'i

US declares Maui wildfires in Hawaii a major disaster as death toll rises to 36

A New Zealander on holiday in Maui says the wildfires devastating the Hawaiian island are unlike anything he has seen before.

Deadly wildfires on Maui prompted a county-wide state of emergency, and several brush fires have also caused evacuations on Hawai’i Island.

Officials say at least 36 people have died and more than 270 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, the BBC reported.

US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state of Hawaii, meaning the federal government will provide funding to assist state and local recovery efforts, the BBC reported.

Canada-based New Zealander Tim Hoy, who was on holiday in Maui, said powerful winds fuelled the fires as they spread.

“We’re located in between two fires right now, and the wind forces have been nothing like I’ve witnessed before,” he said.

‘Stronger than Wellington’

“I’ve spent a lot of years in Wellington, it’s stronger than what you’d see on the strongest day in Wellington.”

House of Travel chief operating officer Brent Thomas said hundreds of New Zealanders were on Hawaii when the fires started.

“It’s a very popular destination, particularly given it’s winter in New Zealand,” he said.

“We’ve got hundreds of people up there at the moment, but obviously not all of them are impacted.”

Hoy said one of the fires was under control, but the other was still raging.

“They’ve done a great job of controlling one of the fires,” he said.

Ripped through historic town

“The other one, it’s completely wiped out a township and it’s unable to be contained.”

Maui County estimated more than 270 buildings had been damaged in the fires.

“My daughter’s friend, her family’s house was burned down,” Hoy said. “They’re currently a few miles down the coast staying at accommodation there.”

The fire on the island’s west coast tore through the town of Lāhainā. Hoy said everyone there was told to evacuate.

“The area that got wiped out was a major tourist destination, and everyone’s been asked to leave Maui if they can,” he said. “So they’ve headed to the airport, and there’s people in shelters.”

Hawaii Tourism Authority public affairs officer Illihia Gionson said Lāhainā, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, had historic and cultural importance.

Ash and rubble

“One of the most historic towns on Maui, Lāhainā, is for all intents and purposes burnt to the ground,” he said.

“Little left there other than ash and rubble, lots of older buildings [made of] wood. So it appears a lot of those landmarks are gone.”

Gionson said the safety of tourists was vital, but local residents needed the most support.

“We think about the importance of assisting visitors in getting out, to free up those resources and attention for the thousands of residents whose homes were affected, whose businesses were affected, whose livelihoods were affected,” he said.

“We’re keeping them front and centre in our thoughts and prayers.”

Victoria University Pacific Studies lecturer Emalani Case, who was born in Hawaii, said residents of Maui should come first.

Tourists told: Stay away

She urged would-be tourists to stay away while the island recovered.

“A really important message to come out of what’s unfolding right now is: don’t go to Maui,” she said.

“If you’re planning a trip, don’t go there. The resources and the energies and the money on that island right now really needs to go to the people who are living there and who are going to have to struggle for a while.”

Case said it was an emotional time for all Hawaiians.

“It’s so hard to be so far away,” she said. “I don’t even think we know the scale of it all yet, but just watching it online has been heartbreaking.”

Former prime minister John Key, whose property in Wailea on the southwest side of the island escaped any damage so far, said the island’s rebuild would be difficult.

Sir John Key: “heartbreaking’

“It’s absolutely devastating for everyone on the island.

“To lose 36 people is heartbreaking.

“The infrastructure will really struggle because there are really limited road access in and out, you can see there is issues with telecommunications and I think in general electricity will be challenged.

“The biggest problem of all in Maui is it’s by definition an island, and it’s a reasonably significant distance away from the mainland, so everything has to be brought in, and most likely by ship.”

New Zealand’s Fire and Emergency said it was prepared to send firefighters to Hawaii if the US government asked for help.

‘No request so far’

“We keep in frequent touch with our counterparts in Canada and the US during the northern hemisphere fire season,” a spokesperson said.

“So far we have not received a formal request for assistance from the USA.”

Service delivery wildfire manager Tim Mitchell said fires like those on Maui were extremely destructive.

“They get very hot, we’re talking hundreds or even thousands of degrees,” he said. “Under those conditions they’re just not survivable, and they absolutely consume everything in their path.”

He said it was vital for people to be aware of wildfire risks.

“They will spread faster than what you can outrun,” he said.

‘Wildfires can occur anywhere’

New Zealand will enter its own wildfire season within the next couple of months.

Mitchell said a fire could start anywhere and at any time.

“Historically, we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of Hawaii as a high wildfire risk place. There are places in New Zealand that we wouldn’t consider high risk,” he said.

“It just goes to show that, if you’ve got the dry vegetation and you get a spark or an ignition, that wildfires can occur everywhere.”

- With additional reporting by BBC