Los Angeles: At least 53 people have been confirmed dead in the devastating hurricane-driven wildfires in Hawaii’s Maui Island, authorities said, warning that the death toll will likely continue to rise.
“As firefighting efforts continue, 17 additional fatalities have been confirmed today amid the active Lahaina fire. This brings the death toll to 53 people,” Maui County wrote in a statement posted to the county website on Thursday, The Guardian reported.
Crews have continued mass evacuation efforts and desperate searches for survivors as displaced residents try to come to terms with what appears to be widespread destruction, particularly in the historic community of Lahaina.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Josh Green, Hawaii’s Governor said.
The US president, Joe Biden, on Thursday approved a disaster declaration for Maui, which will allow federal aid be used to help local recovery efforts for areas affected by the wildfires. He pledged that the federal response will ensure “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or who’s home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately”.
Fire engulfed Lahaina, a town of 13,000 residents on Tuesday night when strong winds propelled a blaze that had started in vegetation to the urban centre, The Guardian reported.
On Thursday, three fires remained active on the island, in Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry. The Lahaina fire was 80 per cent contained. County officials said firefighters have been facing “multiple flare-ups” and additional firefighters were requested from Honolulu.
Search and rescue efforts are a priority, said Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Hawaii emergency management agency. But teams will not be able to access certain areas until the fire lines are secure and they can get to those areas safely, he added.
Officials were working to evacuate residents and tourists stranded in Kaanapali, just north of Lahaina, The Guardian reported.
Officials were preparing a convention centre in Honolulu to accommodate up to 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires. Kahului airport in Maui was also sheltering 2,000 travellers who recently arrived on the island or whose flights were cancelled.
“These fires are absolutely devastating, and we will not know the full extent of the damage for a while. In the meantime, the highest priority is the safety of the people,” said Brian Schatz, the US Senator for Hawaii, in a statement.
The catastrophic fires, which turned neighbourhoods into barren wastelands and destroyed more than a thousand structures, are expected to become Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster since 1961 – when a tsunami killed 61 people.
Hurricane Dora complicated matters for firefighters in an already dry season. Hawaii, which is currently facing drought conditions, is sandwiched between high pressure to the north and a low pressure system associated with Dora, said Jeff Powell, a meteorologist in Honolulu, adding that dryness and gusts “make a dangerous fire situation so that fires that do exist can spread out of control very rapidly”.
The Maui county Mayor, Richard Bissen Jr, said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime”.
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