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Death toll rises to 53 after fires level tourist area in Maui, Hawaii

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-08-11 08:12

This handout photo courtesy of Carter Barto via Facebook shows an aerial view of smoke rising above as a wildfire burns in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 9, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

Wildfires fueled by dry conditions and fanned by high winds from a passing hurricane brought an inferno to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where Lahaina, a historic tourist town with a population of 12,000 was burned down, with at least 53 people dead.

"We are talking about the largest natural disaster of this generation in Hawaii," Governor Josh Green told The Associated Press.

Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke took a helicopter survey of the aftermath. "It was so shocking and devastating, it looks as if the whole town was devastated, the whole town was decimated," she said.

A video showed that many structures in Lahaina were burned to the ground along the coast and beyond. A voice in the video cried out: "Oh my god, I can't believe it. This is like a war zone."

Richie Olsten, director of operations for Air Maui Helicopters posted aerial video of the town on YouTube. He said he expected some structural damage but didn't anticipate the totality of the destruction.

"The courthouse, the mission home, all the churches, all the places that are tourist areas and Hawaii history are gone, and that can't be replaced. You can't refurbish a building that's just ashes now. You can't rebuild. It's lost forever," said Olsten.

Major General Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for the Hawaii Department of Defense, said that three conditions made the fire deadly and uncontainable — dry conditions with dry fields and dry plants, low humidity and high winds.

"The reason it spread so fast is that there are reports of gusts up to 85 miles per hour. That is so fast. That's why Maui County has a such hard time doing the containment of the fire because the wind is so high, we couldn't provide the helicopters to do the water bucket support," said Hara.

The fire burned so fast that some people had only minutes to flee, and some ran into the ocean to flee the flames. The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape the fire and smoke, including two children, and helped another 40.

The death toll could climb as search and rescue missions continue, said local officials. Local hospitals are busy treating people suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen posted a video message on Facebook: "These past few days, the resolve of our families, businesses and visitors has been tested like never before in our lifetime. With lives lost and properties decimated, we are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time."

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by wildfires. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Biden expressed his "deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property", the White House said in a statement.

About 2,000 travelers from canceled and inbound flights sheltered at a local airport. According to local officials, about 11,000 travelers flew out of Maui on Wednesday.

Some airlines brought in bigger planes to increase capacity to get people off the island as quickly as possible. Another 1,500 people were scheduled to fly out on Thursday.

The fire will have a serious impact on Maui because tourism counts for about 80 percent of its economy. It's too early to know how long it will take for the island, which took a heavy hit from the pandemic, to rebound from the additional blow. Local officials are urging travelers to leave the island and others to reschedule their travel plans.

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