A major disaster declaration would unlock additional federal resources.

LAHAINA, Maui — Large sections of Lahaina town have been altered almost beyond recognition by the wildfire that raged Tuesday night.

By Wednesday morning, the United Methodist Church had been burned to its stone foundation and many homes and businesses were down to floor level, some with their door frames still standing.

The full human toll of the fire is still not clear.

Maui County late Wednesday confirmed at least 36 people had died in the Lahaina fire, a dramatic upward revision from the six announced earlier in the day.

Roads in the town remain choked by abandoned vehicles, many burned down to their chassis and standing on their tire rims. Cars appear to have been parked in a hurry on the sidewalks with doors open.

Destroyed cars in Lahaina on Wednesday in the aftermath of destructive fires. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

The Lahaina Public Library has gone, but the banyan tree in the center of town is still standing despite damage to its trunks and limbs.

Wednesday morning Erika Castillo, 21, headed in the direction of her car. She had packed all of her belongings to flee Tuesday night, but was forced to leave the vehicle. Her boyfriend Mikel Reyes, 25, said “we’ve got to go check if she’s got anything left.”

Castillo, who cleans houses for a living, had safely located her family members and when she found her car she stretched her arms out in relief.

“Nobody really knows how it started. It was a fat fire,” Reyes said, as he and Castillo packed up their remaining belongings from their home with help from Castillo’s aunt Addrianna Castillo.

Adam Ferdette, from Kihei, had been working as a subcontractor for Hawaiian Electric in Lahaina Tuesday replacing telephone poles that had been brought down by the high winds.

When he returned Wednesday, the replacement poles had been toppled by the wildfire and were still smoking.

Addrianna Castillo helps her niece Erika Castillo pack her belongings from an apartment in Lahaina. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

“The whole town was devastated, Lahaina was decimated,” said Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke Wednesday evening after inspecting the damage from the air. “It was shocking.”

The three Maui fires — besides Lahaina there are fires in Pulehu and Upcountry — had been contained late Wednesday, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, but the 120 firefighters were still watching for flareups.

The county remains in a “search and rescue” mode, according to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, and an investigation into the origins of the Lahaina fire is not yet underway.

Pattern of fire activity on Maui on Thursday Aug. 10, 2023. (Provided: FIRMS)

The flyover of Lahaina town and harbor showed extensive damage to at least 271 buildings, and a federal team is also on the ground assisting with the search and rescue efforts. U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard are operating along the West Maui coast, the county said.

In the Lahaina harbor area all the docks burned, and small debris fires still burned in the harbor. The debris has already disrupted interisland travel and efforts to get relief supplies in.

The Maui-Lanai passenger ferry, has halted operations, a state lawmaker said. “There is a mass loss of boats,” said Sen. Lynn DeCoite, who represents both islands. “We don’t know where those boats that sank are and if we have a ferry service coming in, we can’t have unknown wreckage.”

Residents walked and biked into Lahaina on Wednesday to assess the damage and reconnect with family. (Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat/2023)

How Fires Developed Tuesday

Hundreds of acres on the Big Island and on Maui had already burned when Luke issued an emergency proclamation Tuesday, as Hurricane Dora passed 500 miles to the south but still fanning ground conditions ripe for fire.

The Maui wildfires developed on multiple fronts during the course of the day.

Maui County officials reported that a brush fire that had started before 1 a.m. in the Olinda Road area of Kula, had led to the evacuation of 54 residents from their homes by 5 a.m.

At 6.37 a.m. a brush fire was reported in the area of Lahainaluna Road and three minutes later the area around the Lahaina Intermediate School was evacuated. That fire was declared 100% contained by 9 a.m. the county said, but a flareup at 3.30 p.m. caused a closure of the Lahaina Bypass.

By 9.45 p.m. the county reported multiple structures had burned and multiple evacuations were in place in Lahaina and Upcountry Maui.

Luke said that residents know to prepare well in advance for hurricanes, but not for simultaneous wildfires.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands will cause this type of wildfires, wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes,” she said.

A large tree fell short of this Kula home Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, on Maui. Strong winds hammered the island which gave rise to multiple wildfires. There was no electricity in the neighborhood. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A large tree fell short of this Kula home bringing down power lines. By Wednesday evening there were still more than 10,000 customers without power. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Power outages have carried on into Wednesday evening, with over 10,000 people still without power, according to Hawaiian Electric’s Maui County outage map. Most of those were concentrated around Lahaina. Cell and internet services remained severely interrupted.

Plans to evacuate visitors by air evolved during the day, Maui County Communications Director Mahina Martin said, and by 9 p.m. Wednesday evening, some had started to arrive at the Honolulu Convention Center on Oahu. Some 600 people would overnight at Maui’s airport awaiting a flight Thursday morning.

In addition to the official response, concerned community members had congregated at Maalaea Harbor early Wednesday morning, transferring everything from pallets of bottled water to diapers, canned food and bedding from trucks and pickups.

Others were looking for ways to get to Lahaina, offering money to the crews to hitch an hours-long boat ride to find family and friends.

The boats sailed to Kanaapali to both drop off the goods and pick up people stranded along the coast.

The sheer amount of support and goodwill that inundated Maui County was heartening, according to Martin, the county’s communications director.

Denver Coon and the crew of Trilogy Excursions loading water in Maalaea Harbor to deliver to the community of Kaanapali after road closures in West Maui. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Denver Coon of Trilogy Excursions picked up 25 people from Kaanapali on Wednesday afternoon, while another of the company’s boats picked up several more later in the day.

Many of the residents had not seen the devastation at Lahaina until they sailed back around the coast.

“There were a lot of people crying,” Coon said. “Their homes are gone and, for a lot of people, their jobs are gone. The view from the ocean: There’s nothing left standing, except for a few frames.”

Coon’s outfit was among many making trips back and forth around the coast, many of which are planning to continue shipping supplies on Thursday.

Civil Beat reporter Brittany Lyte contributed to this report.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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