Hundreds of firefighters are currently battling catastrophic wildfires in Maui, Hawaii. The fires ignited on August 8, 2023. The flames rapidly burnt through vegetation before exploding overnight and spreading to nearby communities. Fanned by strong winds from a distant hurricane, they moved so quickly that some residents were forced to jump into the ocean to escape.
Over 12,000 people in West Maui are without power, and more than 2,000 have been forced to evacuate and seek shelter. At least 55 people have died, and the numbers are expected to rise in the coming days.
The historic town of Lahaina has been particularly hard hit. The fires have destroyed streets and burned hundreds of structures. Many of them contained precious artifacts of the ancient whaling village's legacy and history. The flames have also scorched a beloved 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina's Front Street. Often described as the "heartbeat" of the town, it was just an 8-foot sapling ((2.4-meter) when it was planted in 1873. Standing at over 60 feet (18.3 meter ) tall, it is now believed to be the largest banyan tree in the US.
"We expected rain; we expected floods," Acting Governor Sylvia Luke told reporters. "We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane that did not make impact on our islands would cause these kinds of wildfires."
On August 10, 2023, Maui officials reported that the Lahaina fire, the most damaging of the three blazes, was 80 percent contained. The second one in Central Maui was 70 percent contained. However, they did not share details about the third fire raging in the mountainous region.
The cause of the fires is still under investigation. But like the rest of the Hawaiian islands, Maui has experienced unusually hot, dry conditions in recent months. This, combined with the spread of a highly flammable invasive plant species and 67 mph (108 km/h) hurricane winds, provided the perfect conditions for the wildfires to spread rapidly.
On August 8, 2023, US President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii. This will free up Federal funds to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by wildfires.
"Anyone who's lost a loved one, whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately," the president promised.
Several charity organizations have begun special fundraising efforts to provide food and other supplies to displaced residents.
Meanwhile, Hawaii's governor, Josh Green, is urging all visitors to leave the island as soon as possible. The unusual move is to ensure that hotel rooms and other accommodations can be freed up for those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
"We'll welcome visitors back to paradise after the fire's done and after we can rebuild," Green said in an interview with CNN.
Resources: CNN.com, Mauinow.com, weather.com, wikipedia.com