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Maui wildfires: San Francisco mayor London Breed evacuated to Honolulu

Mayor London Breed signs legislation
Mayor London Breed signs the budget in San Francisco on July 26, 2023. She was in Maui when the fires swept the island. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Thousands of people raced to escape homes in Maui as blazes swept across the Hawaiian island, destroying parts of a centuries-old town and killing at least 36 people in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in recent years.

The fire took the island by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once bustling streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood in Lahaina, which dates to the 1700s and has long been a favorite destination of tourists. Crews battled blazes in several places on the island Wednesday, and the flames forced some adults and children to flee into the ocean.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed was visiting Maui when wildfire evacuations forced her to relocate to Honolulu.

In a statement early Thursday, mayoral spokesperson Jeff Cretan confirmed the mayor's current safety.

"The Mayor was on Maui for a personal trip when the wildfires started. The Governor of Hawaii issued an order encouraging all visitors to depart the island," Cretan said. "The Mayor has left the island and is now on Oahu. The Mayor was never in danger. This wildfire is devastating to witness and our thoughts are with the people of Maui."

The mayor's presence was first reported late Wednesday in Politico.

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Tuesday. | Source: Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

At least 36 people have died, according to a statement from Maui County late Wednesday that said no other details were available. Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured. It is the deadliest fire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and virtually razed the town of Paradise.

Officials warned that the death toll in Hawaii could rise, with the fires still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies Tuesday afternoon. The couple and their 6-year-old son got back to their apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water, and only had time to grab a change of clothes and run as the bushes around them caught fire.

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

As the family fled, a senior center across the road erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn't know if the people got out. As they drove away, downed utility poles and others fleeing in cars slowed their progress. "It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything," Kawaakoa, 34, said.

People gather while waiting for flights at the Kahului Airport in Kahului, Hawaii, on Wednesday. Several thousand Hawaii residents raced to escape homes on Maui as the Lahaina fire swept across the island, killing multiple people and burning parts of a centuries-old town. | Source: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

As the fires raged, tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 visitors flew out of Maui on Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had "been tested like never before in our lifetime."

"We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time," he said in a recorded statement. "In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a 'kaiaulu,' or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha."

The fires were whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It's the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.

Wildfires aren't unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze, and once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

"The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer."

The Big Island is also currently seeing blazes, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.

People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Maui, on Tuesday. | Source: Alan Dickar via AP

As winds eased somewhat on Maui on Wednesday, pilots were able 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."

Search-and-rescue teams are fanning out in the devastated areas in the hopes of finding survivors, Adam Weintraub, communication director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said on ABC's Good Morning America.

Addressing the fear that there could be additional deaths, Weintraub acknowledged "these were large and fast-moving fires, and it's only recently that we've started to get our arms around them and contain them. So, we're hoping for the best, but we're prepared for the worst."

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.

Members of a Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildland firefighting crew on Maui battle a fire in Kula, Hawaii, on Tuesday. | Source: Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defense, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working on getting communications restored, distributing water and possibly adding law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 150,000 gallons of water on the Maui fires.

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 Oahu, officials said.

Bissen, the Maui County mayor, said at a Wednesday morning news conference that 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.

Mauro Farinelli, of Lahaina, said the winds started blowing hard on Tuesday, and then somehow a fire 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 ordered all available federal assets to help with the response. He said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search-and-rescue efforts.

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

Gov. Josh Green cut short a trip and planned to return Wednesday evening. In his absence, acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation and urged tourists to stay away.

Alan Dickar, who owns a poster gallery and three houses in Lahaina, bemoaned the loss of so much in the town and to him personally.

"The central two blocks is the economic heart of this island, and I don't know what's left," he said. "Every significant thing I owned burned down today."

Sinco Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Perry from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

George Kelly can be reached at gkelly@sfstandard.com