Fire and smoke fill the sky from wildfires at the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. (Zeke Kalua/County of Maui)
Historic Maui town in ruins after wildfires
Officials have confirmed 53 fatalities in the devastating wildfires that destroyed Lahaina and have yet to be fully contained.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, August 10, 2023
HAWAII (CN) — Historic buildings have been reduced to ashes following a massive blaze that ripped through a centuries-old Maui town that was home to dozens of historically and culturally significant sites.
Maui officials continued Thursday to survey the extent of damage done by three fast-moving brushfires that started on the island Tuesday, with some of the most devastating damage being done in Lahaina. State officials confirmed Thursday afternoon that the death toll had risen to 53 but emphasized that they were still assessing the damage and the number is likely to rise.
“It’s a heartbreaking day,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green, who returned from a shortened mainland trip Wednesday night to oversee the response to the wildfires, said in a press conference. “What we’ve seen today has been catastrophic. What we saw was the utter devastation of Lahaina.”
Green appealed to community members on Maui and other islands to consider opening their homes, and hotels, to the thousands who have been displaced by the fires. The governor has issued a series of emergency proclamations triggering access to state funds for recovery.
President Joe Biden also approved a national disaster declaration for the state on Thursday, making federal funding available to those affected by the fires in Maui County. FEMA funds will also be directly available to county residents. Even so, Green estimated that recovery will likely take years and billions of dollars.
Early estimates following a flyover originally found at least 271 structures in Lahaina town had been damaged or destroyed by the blaze, but contentious questioning at Thursday’s press conference had Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen saying “the whole thing is gone.”
Officials asked for patience while remaining vague about community concerns, as West Maui remains blocked off from the rest of the island, with only one road in and out, and only for authorized individuals while they attempt rescue and recovery. Although Lahaina Town has been almost entirely decimated, the closure leaves residents in nearby Ka’anapali and Napili-Honokowai trapped with dwindling food and supplies, despite the outpouring of donations from the local community and other islands.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, “Understand this, Lahaina Town is hallowed, sacred ground right now because our iwi are in that ground. We have to get them out. We will get them out as fast as we can, but I need your patience while we do this.”
At least three separate fires in Lahaina and in Maui upcountry have yet to be entirely contained on the Valley Isle, despite the round-the-clock work of hundreds of firefighters and assistance from the U.S. military, which deployed several helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue efforts.
Officials said Thursday afternoon that the Lahaina fire was around 80% contained, and fires east of Kihei were 70% contained, while a fire in Kula in upcountry Maui continued. Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said in a Thursday afternoon update that smaller fires are still cropping up and that heavy winds still barraging the island meant rapid fire development was still a possibility.
Officials were reluctant to confirm the extent of the losses but aerial images of Lahaina show what was a colorful, bustling town center now reduced to gray, crumbling ruins.
Lahaina’s historic district, including Front Street — which sustained significant damage in the fire — was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and was the key port in the 19th century whaling industry. Many of the buildings in Lahaina downtown were historic sites and the town, with its preserved charm and role as the artistic center of Maui, was a popular visitor destination.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser confirmed Thursday that several of Lahaina town’s iconic historical buildings had been destroyed or damaged by the fires, including the oldest home on the island, The Baldwin House, built in 1834 by missionaries, along with Pioneer Inn, Lahaina’s oldest operating hotel.
The area of Lahaina was also culturally significant to Native Hawaiians, as the seat of Maui’s ali’i, or high chief. Reports have also said that Waiola Church, the resting place of several members of the royal family of the Kingdom of Hawaii, including the wife of King Kamehameha I, had also burned down.
The fate of Lahaina town’s beloved banyan tree is still uncertain, though social media images and videos have shown the massive tree with its 17 trunks still standing. The 150-year-old banyan tree is the largest and oldest banyan tree in the United States. It stood opposite the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which appeared on social media to also be heavily damaged.
In Hawaiian, Lā hainā means “cruel sun”, in reference to the dry, sunny climate of the area. Lahaina is typically affected by drought and is prone to wildfires — though none to the scale of this week’s destruction.
Dry grasses and brush, combined with recent unusual low humidity, primed the area for the brushfires. Intense winds from Category 4 Hurricane Dora, which has now passed south of the state, fanned the fires and made it difficult for helicopters to help suppress the blazes. Officials said it is not yet clear what led to the specific ignition of the fires.
Several donation drives are being held around the islands, including one at the State Capitol, and many local organizations are accepting donations as well.
This banyan tree in Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, was planted in 1873. It has 17 major trunks. (Kelsey Jukam/Courthouse News)