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WILDFIRES

Maui fires scorch Hawaii resort areas, killing at least six

A handout photo made available by Carter Barto shows an arial view of buildings damaged in Lahaina, Hawaii as a result of a large wildfire which has killed 6 people and forced thousands of evacuations on the island of Maui in Hawaii, USA, 09 August 2023. Winds from Hurricane Dora, which is currently over the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of Hawaii, have intensified the wildfires. EPA-EFE/CARTER BARTO / HANDOUT

Wildfires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated Hawaii's Maui island on Wednesday, killing at least six people and forcing tourists and residents to flee as beloved tourist destinations became flaming infernos.

Some people were forced to jump into the ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the US 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.

Six people had been confirmed killed by the fires, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said at a press conference.

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 once-idyllic 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.

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 government officials must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.

Dustin Johnson, a native of San Diego, was in West Maui’s Lahaina working for a charter boat company that takes tourists on two-hour tours from the 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 Kahului Airport, a 25-minute drive east of Lahaina. “And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way.”

Jolie Campbell and Conner Campbell, newlyweds from Cincinnati, were staying north of Lahaina on Tuesday when they lost power early in the day. Despite the high winds, they went on a tour to a different part of the island.

As they approached Lahaina in the afternoon, however, they saw a huge cloud of smoke and received phone alerts telling them to evacuate. Their tour guide dropped them off at the airport, unable to return them to the hotel, where all their belongings remained on Wednesday.

“We’re happy to be okay,” Conner Campbell said in an interview from the airport. “We were praying all night for people to be safe.”

Business owner Alan Dickar told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser he wasn’t sure what remained of his Vintage European Posters gallery on the now-decimated Front Street in Lahaina, home to about 13,000 residents.

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 HARBOUR IS GONE’

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.

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 Lahaina. West Maui was closed to everyone except emergency workers and those evacuating the area, 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 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 state. The storm was about 795 miles south-southwest of Hawaii as of 5am local time, the National Hurricane Center said.

Gale warnings remained in effect for all of the Hawaiian islands, with high winds of 45mph with gusts of 60mph possible.

Ian Martin, an NWS forecaster in Honolulu, told Reuters that the worst of the high winds should end by late Wednesday or early Thursday.

(Reporting by Marco Garcia, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien and Julia Harte; Editing by Aurora Ellis.)

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