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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Survivors describe ‘total inferno’ that scorched west Maui

People waiting for departing flights at Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where at least three wildfires have been raging, in Kahului on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.

By Jill Cowan, Mike Baker and Mitch Smith

Officials were meeting to assess the damage and death toll Thursday morning on the devastated Hawaiian island of Maui, as tourists continued a grim exodus by bus and car to the airport and evacuation shelters. Survivors described fleeing for their lives from a fast-moving “total inferno” that left the historic town of Lahaina in smoking ruins.

President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration and offered condolences as the death toll stood at 36, making the fire one of the nation’s deadliest in decades.

Fueled by unusual conditions that included winds from a distant hurricane, flames burned with such intensity that at least a dozen people escaped into the Pacific Ocean, where they were later rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Firefighters continued to battle flare-ups into Thursday morning.

Here are the details:

— About 1,500 additional tourists were expected to leave Thursday, with buses ferrying visitors to the island’s Kahului Airport. Officials have strongly discouraged any new arrivals in Maui, one of America’s most beloved tourist destinations and a vacation home for the wealthy, including Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bezos.

— The fire appeared to have been exacerbated by winds linked to a hurricane passing hundreds of miles away in the Pacific Ocean, although the exact causes were still unclear. Those winds were expected to ease Thursday. Hawaii has battled a surge of fires in recent years, as wildfires have become more intense and frequent in the American West and beyond because of climate change.

— The fires have been largely contained but were still generating smoke and ash, officials said. Maui opened two additional evacuation shelters Wednesday night. Thirty U.S. Army service members arrived on the island on Wednesday night to conduct search-and-recovery efforts Thursday morning, Maui County officials said.

— Electricity was out and phone service was down in parts of Maui, including Lahaina. About 11,000 customers across Hawaii were without power early Thursday, according to, which compiles data from utilities.

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