By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)
Follow live updates about wildfires that have devastated parts of Maui in Hawaii this week, destroying a historic town and forcing evacuations. The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain, was partly to blame for strong winds that initially drove the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.
This week’s wildfires are expected to be the second costliest disaster in the history of Hawaii, second only to damages from 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, according to a Friday statement from a prominent disaster and risk modeling company.
Karen Clark & Company said in the statement that approximately 3,500 structures were within the perimeter of the fire that torched the popular tourist town of Lahaina in west Maui.
Officials said Thursday that fast-moving flames destroyed 1,000 buildings and killed 55 people, although both numbers are expected to increase.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said Friday he couldn’t comment on a report by The Associated Press that the state’s emergency management records showed no indication that warning sirens sounded off before people were forced to flee.
“I think this was an impossible situation,” Bissen told NBC’s Today show. “The fires came up so quickly and they spread so fast.”
Meanwhile, the county said residents with identification and visitors with proof of hotel reservations could return to parts of Lahaina starting at noon Friday. They will not be allowed into a restricted area of the historic part of Lahaina.
The county said in a statement that a curfew, intended to protect residences and property, will be in place starting tonight from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Lahaina residents will be allowed to return Friday to check on their property and that people who hunkered down in their homes will be able to get out to get water and access other services.
An official announcement will come later Friday from the Maui County mayor’s office, Green told Hawaii News Now.
“The recovery’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, he said, “but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely because it’s pretty dangerous.”
The Maui Humane Society says it is seeking donations to help care for hundreds of dogs, cats and other animals that have been injured or separated from their human families because of the wildfires in Maui.
The shelter says many animals need critical care due to smoke inhalation.
The group said it expects an inundation of lost pets. It is seeking emergency foster homes, pet food and litter, and cash donations to provide medical care for wounded animals and to keep pets in their homes.
As of Friday morning, the organization had raised more than half of its goal of $300,000 via Facebook.
Authorities in Hawaii are working to evacuate people from Maui as firefighters work to contain wildfires and put out flare-ups.
The County of Maui said early Friday that 14,900 visitors left Maui by air Thursday.
Airlines added additional flights to accommodate visitors leaving the island. The county advised visitors that they can book flights to Honolulu and continue on another flight to their destination.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called on residents and visitors to suspend unnecessary travel to the island to make space for first responders and volunteers heading there to help residents. Visitors on nonessential travel were being asked to leave the island, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.
Bissen surveyed the damage in Lahaina on Thursday and said the historic town that has been reduced to charred vehicles and ash doesn’t resemble the place he knew growing up.
“The closest thing I think I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone, or maybe a bomb went off,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday. “It was cars in the street, doors open, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist.”
Regarding search and rescue efforts, he said some cadaver dogs arrived Friday.
Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolences to the people of Hawaii, offering prayers for the victims, people who were injured or displaced from the wildfires, and emergency responders who are providing aid to the victims.
The note said Francis was saddened to learn of the destruction and “expressed solidarity with all those suffering from this tragedy, especially those whose loved ones have died or are missing.”
Professional golfer Collin Morikawa pledged to assist fire relief efforts by donating $1,000 for every birdie he makes during the next three PGA Tour events. Morikawa said his grandparents were born in Lahaina and that he still has relatives on Maui.
Maui County confirmed Thursday night that the number of deaths has increased to 55.
Authorities said in a statement that the number of fatalities increased by two in the total from the Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry fires.
The Lahaina fire was still active, the statement said.
Bissen said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that authorities are still trying to locate and identify people who died in Lahaina when the fire raced through the town.
“People whose homes are not damaged — you can come home as soon as we have recovered those who have perished,” he said. “Please allow us to complete this process.”
Search and rescue teams from California and Washington state that are trained in disaster skills, including using dogs to find human remains, have been deployed to Maui to assist with the process, officials said.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier asked for patience, prayers and perseverance.
“We have to respect that we have loved ones in that earth,” he said, “and we have to get them out.”
People also need to stay away from the burn area because it remains very hazardous, said Fire Chief Brad Ventura, who said some people have been hurt by falling telephone poles.
Bissen said 29 downed power poles with live wires still attached added to the chaos by cutting off two important roads out of Lahaina to Wailuku and the airport. Only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa was left open, contributing to traffic jams as people attempted to flee.
Palmdale, California, resident Kimberly Buen said she can’t reach her father, Maurice “Shadow” Buen, a 79-year-old retired sport fisherman who can’t see or walk well.
“He has no way out,” Buen said. “I’ve been checking all the lists, all the social media and following all the people at the shelters. I already called the Red Cross. And I just don’t know what else to do.”
Marcia Reynolds, of Natick, Massachusetts, had been deciphering handwritten shelter sign-in sheets posted online for signs of her sister, 77-year-old Regina Campisi, who is recovering from surgery. She was later found safe, Reynolds said.
“We are all so relieved,” she said.
Maui officials have opened a Family Assistance Center at the Kahului Community Center for people seeking those unaccounted for. The Maui Emergency Management Agency will pass out forms and help locate the missing.
The death toll from devastating wildfires in Maui climbed to 53 Thursday, Green told the AP.
“We’re talking about the largest natural disaster of this generation in Hawaii,” Green said. “We are heart-sick that there are more than the original 36 who have passed.”
He expects the number to increase as crews continue to search for survivors and said it looks like more than 1,000 structures have been destroyed.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Green said after walking the town Thursday morning with Bissen. “Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
Philanthropy experts recommend that people seeking to donate to Maui’s wildfire victims wait to do so as the full scope of need may not be known for up to a week as firefighters finish up their response.
Regine Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, urged potential donors to support organizations with deep local ties and community knowledge.
People can also donate through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, which vets fundraisers for those who have lost property or were injured and conducts additional verification before releasing the funds. The organization deducts a transaction fee.
Images and stories coming out of the historic town of Lahaina paint a grim scene as Hawaii’s emergency responders work to rescue victims and control wildfires that have ravaged parts of Maui.
A flyover of the area Thursday showed normally vibrant communities reduced to gray. Street after street was nothing but rubble and foundation, said AP video journalist Ty O’Neil, who was on the flight. The road was littered with charred vehicles, and an elementary school was left a mess of collapsed steel.
Tiffany Kidder Winn arrived in Lahaina on Wednesday to survey the damage. Her gift store, Whalers Locker, was destroyed along with many others on Front Street. The scene became gruesome, she said, when she came across a line of burnt vehicles, some with charred bodies inside.
“It looked like they were trying to get out but were stuck in traffic,” she said.
She later spotted a body leaning against a seawall. He had managed to climb over but died before he could reach the ocean while escaping flames, she surmised.
“The fire came through so quickly that there was no notice,” she said. “I think a lot of people just had no time to get out.”
President Joe Biden spoke with Green by phone and offered his condolences for lives lost and land destroyed by the wildfires, according to the White House, which announced earlier Thursday that the president had approved a disaster declaration for the state, clearing the way for federal disaster aid.
He pledged aid to ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or who’s home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.” The funding will include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover damaged uninsured property and other programs for Maui residents and businesses suffering losses.
Biden promised to streamline requests for federal assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on Maui. He ordered all available Coast Guard and Air Force personnel on the island to work with the Hawaii National Guard.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, he said. “But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them.”
Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Ty O’Neil from Lahaina, Maui; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Claire Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; Christopher Megerian contributed from Salt Lake City, Utah; Bobby Caina Calvan from New York City; Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts; and Janie Har from San Francisco.
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