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The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames Matthew Thayer/The Maui News/PA Images
Hawaii

At least 36 people killed as wildfires rip through town of Lahaina in Hawaii

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

AT LEAST 36 people have died as a result of wildfires in the town of Lahaina in Hawaii.

Wildfires, whipped up by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, roared overnight forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.

Officials earlier said that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people were injured.

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

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

As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed yesterday, 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 harbour were scorched and 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 that a team is working on contingency plans and preparing for the possible loss of a 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 Centre’s burn unit on the island of Oahu, officials said.

At least 20 patients were taken to Maui Memorial Medical Centre, officials said, and a firefighter was taken to hospital in stable condition after inhaling smoke.

Richard Bissen Jr, the mayor of Maui County, said at a news conference that he did not have details on how or where on the island the six deaths occurred. He said officials had not 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 centres. Another 2,000 travellers sheltered at Kahului Airport after many flights were cancelled. Officials were preparing the Hawaii Convention Centre in Honolulu to take in thousands of displaced tourists and locals.

correction-hawaii-fires People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in Lahaina Alan Dickar / PA Images Alan Dickar / PA Images / PA Images

US President Joe Biden said he had ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilised 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.

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

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. Mr 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 yesterday. With mobile 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.

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

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

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

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