At least 6 dead as Maui wildfires overwhelm hospitals, sever 911 services and force people to flee into the ocean


At least six people have died as a result of the fires raging on Maui, the island’s mayor, Richard Bissen Jr., said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

“I’m sad to report that just before coming on this, it was confirmed we’ve had 6 fatalities,” he said. “We are still in a search and rescue mode.”

Several people are also unaccounted for, Bissen added. He did not offer further details about the deaths.

“We’ve had many dwellings – businesses, structures – that have been burned, many of them to the ground,” the mayor said, adding most of those buildings were in the town of Lahaina.

“As a result of three fires that have occurred that are continuing here on our island we have had 13 evacuations from different neighborhoods and towns, we’ve had 16 road closures, we’ve opened five shelters,” Bissen said, noting more than 2,000 people were staying at shelters.

Bissen said helicopters that could not safely fly a day earlier due to high winds were in the sky Wednesday and using water drops to help suppress the flames. It will be impossible to estimate the extent of the damage until the blazes are put out, he added.

The wildfires torching the idyllic Hawaiian island are raging out of control, but the true scope of devastation remains unknown.

That’s because the infernos have knocked out cell service, hindered emergency communications and trapped residents and tourists on the island, is home to about 117,000.

“Local people have lost everything,” said James Kunane Tokioka, the state’s business, economic development and tourism director, at the news conference. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals and it’s devastating.”

The fires are so catastrophic, some people have hurled themselves into the ocean to escape the flames. And Hawaii’s governor, who was on a personal trip this week, said he was rushing back to the state Wednesday.

But even emergency crews might not be able to help everyone who needs it. The wildfires – fueled in part by Hurricane Dora churning some 800 miles away – have cut off 911 service and other communications in many parts of Maui.

“911 is down. Cell service is down. Phone service is down,” Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told CNN on Wednesday morning.

“Our hospital system on Maui, they are overburdened with burn patients, people suffering from inhalation,” she said. “The reality is that we need to fly people out of Maui to give them burn support because Maui hospital cannot do extensive burn treatment.”

The disaster also has wiped out power to about 14,000 homes and businesses in Maui, according to PowerOutage.us.

Tourists are being discouraged from going to Maui, Luke told reporters Wednesday.

“Today we signed another emergency proclamation which will discourage tourists from going to Maui,” she said. “Even as of this morning, planes were landing on Maui with tourists. This is not a safe place to be.”

In certain parts of the island, there are shelters that are overrun, Luke added: “We have resources that are being taxed.”

Hawaii isn’t the only US state grappling with devastating wildfires – a trend some experts had predicted for this season. Parts of Texas are under a critical fire risk Wednesday, a day after a brush fire engulfed an apartment building in the Austin area.

But the crisis unfolding in Maui is extraordinary, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor said.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands, will cause this type of wildfires,” Luke told reporters at Wednesday’s news conference. “Wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes.”

A harrowing escape to a rainforest

Alan Dickar just learned one of his rental properties went up in flames when he saw an economic hub of Maui get swallowed by wildfire.

Flames shoot toward the sky Tuesday night at the intersection of Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii. - Zeke Kalua/County of Maui

Flames shoot toward the sky Tuesday night at the intersection of Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii. – Zeke Kalua/County of Maui

“Front Street exploded in flame,” Dickar told CNN Wednesday.

Dickar, who has lived in the area for 24 years, said there was little time to flee.

“I grabbed some people I saw on the street who didn’t seem to have a good plan. And I had told them, ‘Get your stuff, get in my truck,’” he said.

“And there’s only one road that leads out of Lahaina, so obviously it was backed up,” Dickar said. “I dropped everybody else off and then I went to a place in another part of Maui that’s far away. And as soon as I got there, that whole area had to evacuate because of a totally different fire. … Just as I arrived, that whole area got evacuated.”

Dickar eventually fled to a remote part of Maui. “I figured that was enough, and I’m safe here at least from a fire evacuation because it’s a rainforest,” he said.

Clint Hansen took drone video Tuesday night that showed wildfires spreading just north of Kihei.

Clint Hansen shot this footage of catastrophic blazes on the island of Maui. - Clint Hansen of Maui Real Estate Radio

Clint Hansen shot this footage of catastrophic blazes on the island of Maui. – Clint Hansen of Maui Real Estate Radio

“Lahaina has been devastated,” Hansen told CNN. “People jumping in the ocean to escape the flames, being rescued by the Coast Guard. All boat owners are being asked to rescue people. It’s apocalyptic.”

Live Updates: Wildfires burn in Maui, prompting rescues in Lahaina

A dozen people were rescued near Lahaina after “entering the ocean due to smoke and fire conditions,” the Coast Guard and county officials said. “Individuals were transported by the Coast Guard to safe areas,” Maui County officials said.

And it’s not clear where the disaster will head next.

Maui fire officials warned that erratic wind, challenging terrain, steep slopes and dropping humidity, plus the direction and the location of the fire conditions make it difficult to predict path and speed of a wildfire, according to Maui County officials.

“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Maui County Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said. “Burning airborne materials can light fires a great distance away from the main body of fire.”

Lost communications and stranded tourists

State officials are working with hotels and a local airline to try to evacuate tourists to another island, Luke said. But severed communications have hindered efforts to reach everyone.

“Resorts and visitors and commercial districts have lost communication due to downed cell towers and landlines that only work within very local areas. “As a result, 911 service is currently down,” said Mahina Martin, chief communications officer from Maui Emergency Management Agency.

Maui County officials have not been able to communicate with many people on the west side – including those in the Lahaina area, Luke said.

Satellite phones have been the only reliable way to get in touch with some areas, including hotels, the lieutenant governor said.

“What we are trying to do is deploy individuals to go into areas with satellite phone service. We have only been in contact with perhaps one hotel because the one hotel, the people in charge of that hotel have satellite phones,” Luke said Wednesday morning.

“That’s the only way you can make connection. It’s impeding communication … and we are very concerned about that.”

Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for parts of Maui, the emergency management official said.

“Right now emergency shelters are open in a number of areas across parts of West Maui and South Maui,” Martin said. “But as precautionary measures, because of the ongoing fires, we’ve relocated the emergency shelters outside of the district.”

The Kahului Airport was sheltering about 1,800 travelers from “canceled flights and flight arrivals,” the Hawaii Department of Transportation posted on social media.

The state is discouraging any nonessential travel to the island of Maui due to the fires, Hawaiian Airlines told CNN in a statement.

Members of a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildland firefighting crew battle a fire Tuesday in Kula, Hawaii. - Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

Members of a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildland firefighting crew battle a fire Tuesday in Kula, Hawaii. – Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

Members of the Hawaii National Guard are assisting with the calamity in Maui – with more on the way.

“Hawaii National Guardsmen have been activated and are currently on Maui assisting Maui Police Department at traffic control points,” Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii’s adjutant general, posted on Facebook.

The overnight deployment was hastened by the dynamic fire conditions, Hara wrote, adding more National Guard personnel would arrive in the counties of Maui and Hawaii later Wednesday.

Hurricane Dora’s impact on the wildfires

Dora, a powerful Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph, was about 795 miles southwest of Honolulu as of Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect.

Smoke rises from a wildfire Tuesday in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. - courtesy Sam Posthuma

Smoke rises from a wildfire Tuesday in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. – courtesy Sam Posthuma

As Dora travels south of the islands, a strong high-pressure system remains in place to the north. The area of high pressure in combination with Dora is producing “very strong and damaging winds,” the National Weather Service said.

Winds as high as 60 mph are expected through the overnight in Hawaii, then will begin to diminish through the day on Wednesday.

“These strong winds coupled with low humidity levels are producing dangerous fire weather conditions that will last through Wednesday afternoon,” the weather service said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the area of high pressure, as well as Dora, will both drift westward, allowing the winds to subside.

Two brushfires were burning Tuesday on the Big Island, officials said in a news release, one in the North Kohala District and the other in the South Kohala District. Some residents were under mandatory evacuation orders as power outages were impacting communications, the release said.

Luke, who is acting as the governor as Green was out of the state, issued an emergency proclamation related to the fires on Tuesday.

Plumes of smoke billow Tuesday from a fire in Lahaina, Maui County. - Jayson Duque

Plumes of smoke billow Tuesday from a fire in Lahaina, Maui County. – Jayson Duque

“We are closely following the wildfires caused by the strong winds of Hurricane Dora,” Luke said in a statement. “The safety of our residents is paramount, and this emergency proclamation will activate the Hawaiʻi National Guard to support emergency responders in the impacted communities.”

Green has been fully briefed on Dora and its impacts, according to the news release.

“Lieutenant Governor Luke has my full support,” Green said. “My thoughts are with the residents and businesses affected by Hurricane Dora.”

CNN’s Caroll Alvarado, Derek Van Dam, Robert Shackelford, Aya Elamroussi, Kara Nelson, Cheri Mossburg, Jennifer Gray, Eli Masket, Ross Levitt and Kelly McCleary contributed to this report.

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