HONOLULU - Wildfires in Hawaii fanned by strong winds burned multiple structures in areas including historic Lahaina town, forcing evacuations and closing schools in several communities Wednesday, and rescuers pulled a dozen people escaping smoke and flames from the ocean.
The U.S. Coast Guard responded to areas where people went into the ocean to escape the fire and smoky conditions, the County of Maui said in a statement. The Coast Guard tweeted that a crew rescued 12 people from the water off Lahaina.
The county tweeted that multiple roads in Lahaina were closed with a warning: "Do NOT go to Lahaina town."
Fire was widespread in Lahaina, including Front Street, an area of the town popular with tourists, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin said in a phone interview early Wednesday. Traffic has been very heavy as people try to evacuate and officials asked people who weren’t in an evacuation area to shelter in place to avoid adding to the traffic, she said.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power as night fell, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters. Dangerous fire conditions created by strong winds and low humidity were expected to last through Wednesday afternoon, the weather service said.
Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard.
Officials were not aware of any deaths and knew of only one injury, a firefighter who was in stable condition at a hospital after experiencing smoke inhalation, Martin said. There’s no count available for the number of structures affected by the fires or the number of people affected by evacuations, but Martin said there are four shelters open, with more than 1,000 people at the largest.
"This is so unprecedented," Martin said, noting that multiple districts were affected. An emergency in the night is terrifying, she said, and the darkness makes it hard to gauge the extent of the damage.
"Right now it is all-hands-on-deck and we are anxious for daybreak," she said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance with a fire that threatened about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch, a rural community with a population of more than 500 on the Big Island, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. When the request was made, the fire had burned more than 600 acres (243 hectares) and was uncontained. Much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning that continued Wednesday, and two other uncontrolled fires were burning on the Big Island and Maui, officials said.
Fire crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the popular tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region. In west Maui 911 service was not available and residents were directed to call the police department.
Because of the wind gusts, helicopters weren't able to dump water on the fires from the sky — or gauge more precise fire sizes — and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin said.
About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.
"It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas," Martin said.
Winds were recorded at 80 mph (129 kph) in inland Maui and one fire that was believed to be contained earlier Tuesday flared up hours later with the big winds, she added.
"The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house," Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said.
In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1.7 square miles (4.5 square kilometers), Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
"We're trying to protect homes in the community," Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of evacuating about 400 homes in four communities in the northern part of the island. As of Tuesday, the roof of one house caught on fire, he said.
Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.
Fires were rare in Hawaii and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.
A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also was dealing with power outages, downed power lines and traffic problems, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.