The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP)

By AUDREY MCAVOY, JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER and NICK PERRY Associated Press

WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — The sky was dark from smoke and flames were racing through the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina when Kamuela Kawaakoa got back to his apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water. He, his girlfriend Iiulia Yasso, and their 6-year-old son grabbed a change of clothes and ran as the bushes around them caught fire.

At least six people were killed when wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.

Officials said 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured. They feared the death toll could rise.

As Kawaakoa and Yasso fled, a senior center erupted in flames. They called 911, but don’t know if the people got out. Fire alarms blared. As they drove away Tuesday afternoon, downed utility poles and fleeing cars slowed their progress.

“We barely made it out in time,” Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday, still unsure if anything was left of their apartment.

Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived. Lahaina Town dates back to the 1700s and has long been a favorite destination for tourists.

“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Kawaakoa said. “I was helpless.”

On Wednesday, crews were continuing to battle blazes in several places on the island. Authorities urged visitors to stay away.

The fires were the latest in a series of problems caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed Wednesday, allowing pilots to view the full scope of the devastation. Aerial video from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine. Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbor were scorched, and gray smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.

“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that,” said Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company. “We had tears in our eyes.”

State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a statement Wednesday that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of an elementary school that had been in Lahaina for more than a century.

“Unofficial aerial photos show the King Kamehameha III Elementary campus — on Front Street in Lahaina — sustained extensive fire and structural damage,” he said. “The Department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week,” he said.

The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape flames and smoke, including two children.

Among those injured were three people with critical burns who were flown to Straub Medical Center’s burn unit on the island of Oahu, officials said. At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, officials said, and a firefighter was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that he didn’t have details on how or where on the island the six deaths occurred. He said officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate cause of the fires, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.

More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centers. Another 2,000 travelers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were canceled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.

Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds had started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire had started up on a hillside.

“It just ripped through everything with amazing speed,” he said, adding it was “like a blowtorch.”

The winds were so strong they blew his garage door off its hinges and trapped his car in the garage, Farinelli said. So a friend drove him, along with his wife Judit and dog Susi, to an evacuation shelter. He had no idea what had happened to their home.

“We’re hoping for the best,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s gone.”

President Joe Biden said he’d ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search and rescue efforts on Maui.

“Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses, and communities destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.

Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media that it’s tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.

Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, said tourists who come to Maui all tend to visit Front Street.

“The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don’t know what’s left,” he said.

Dickar took video of flames engulfing the main strip before escaping with three friends and two cats.

“Every significant thing I owned burned down today,” he said. “I’ll be OK. I got out safely.”

Wildfires were also burning on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there. Roth said firefighters had needed to extinguish some roof fires and there were continuing flareups of one fire near the Mauna Kea Resorts.

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain, was partly to blame for the strong winds.

About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.

Tiare Lawrence was frantically trying to reach her siblings who live near where a gas station exploded in Lahaina.

“There’s no service so we can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said from the Maui community of Pukalani.

Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said the flames had wiped out communities and urged travelers to stay away.

“This is not a safe place to be,” she said.

Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who was traveling. Green’s office said he’d cut short his trip and was returning Wednesday evening.

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. A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

Yasso, who fled her home with boyfriend Kawaakoa, said residents are going to need time to regroup and that people shouldn’t plan to visit right now.

“It’s everybody losing their memories of growing up,” she said. “It’s the memories for everybody. We all lost our homes with this.”

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