The catastrophic wildfires scorching Maui have killed at least 53 people, county officials said Thursday afternoon, as efforts to put out the flames that have burned on the Hawaiian island for three days continued.
Gov. Josh Green said earlier Thursday that he’d expected the death toll to rise “significantly” from the previous count, which was 36, as responders go through the hundreds of buildings that were burned to the ground.
“We haven’t had a loss of life instance like this for many years,” Green told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“As we get into the many hundreds of houses that were overwhelmed by fire,” he added, “we have great concern we will find the remains of people that were not able to escape.”
He estimated that “upwards of 1,700 buildings” were destroyed.
The 53 deaths thus far – reported by Maui County officials – appear to make the wildfire that torched the historic town of Lahaina the second deadliest blaze in the United States in a century. It trails only California’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in 2018.
A Maui County official told CNN “it would be unrealistic to expect identifications (of those killed) anytime soon.”
The fire was 80% contained by Thursday morning, local time, Maui County officials said in a news release.
Those who survived recall harrowing escapes by car or boat, while some fled into the ocean to avoid being burned. At least 17 people were rescued from the water by the Coast Guard and 40 others from the shore, the force said in a news release, adding search and rescue operations are ongoing.
Federal officials believe thousands of people have been displaced.
Among them is Dustin Kaleiopu, whose home in Lahaina was destroyed. “My colleagues, friends, family – we’re all homeless,” Kaleiopu said.
Here’s the latest
• Billions of dollars in losses: While it’s too early to know the full magnitude of destruction, Green, the governor, told CNN he estimates “billions of dollars of structural damage.”
• Dozens are dead: The death toll was 53 Thursday, Maui County officials said.
• Biden approves disaster declaration: The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden had approved a disaster declaration, freeing up federal aid to assist in the recovery in Maui County.
• A historic town is virtually wiped out: Much of Lahaina, where about 12,000 people live in western Maui, has been destroyed and hundreds of families there have been displaced, the governor said. More than 270 structures have been impacted in Lahaina, county officials said.
• Some are still unaccounted for: Three helicopters from the US Coast Guard and US Navy were used in search and rescue efforts along the west Maui coastline, and a federal team arrived Wednesday to help search efforts in the Lahaina area, officials said.
• Thousands don’t have cell phone service: It could take days or even weeks to fix cell phone networks in Maui. Officials have been using satellite phones to communicate with providers on the west side of Maui to restore power to the area, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said.
• There’s not enough long-term shelter: More than 1,300 people stayed at shelters Wednesday night, Maui officials said. While there’s enough shelter for an emergency response for a few days, “there’s not enough shelter for long-term living,” the governor told CNN.
• Visitors relocated: Maui County officials have urged visitors to leave Lahaina and Maui as soon as possible, saying seats were available on outgoing flights. More than 14,000 people were transported off Maui on Wednesday, and officials expect an additional 14,500 to be moved off the island Thursday, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority said.
• Airlines increase capacity: Alaska, Delta, United and American all brought in larger planes to get more people off the island. Southwest dropped its fares and increased service.
• Hospitals are overwhelmed: Hospitals on Maui were overwhelmed with burn patients and people suffering from smoke inhalation, Luke told CNN Wednesday.
Severed communications and an exhausting firefight
Thousands of people – especially on Maui’s western side – still can’t call 911 or update loved ones about their status because power and communications were knocked out, authorities said.
About two dozen firefighters from the Honolulu Fire Department – on the island of Oahu – have been sent to the island of Maui to help battle the blazes, said Scott Humber, spokesperson for the Honolulu mayor’s office.
Some Maui firefighters have been fighting the fires for 24 hours straight, Humber said.
Firefighters are expected to conduct an assessment Thursday morning, Maui County officials said overnight, as the full scope of the devastation remains unclear.
A disaster proclamation issued Wednesday by the governor’s office said “several large fires” continued to burn in both Maui and Hawaii counties, having already consumed “thousands of acres.” Otherwise, there’s been little information about the status of the wildfires, like the number of acres scorched or the extent to which the fires have been contained.
How the wildfires spread so quickly
Fanned in part by fierce winds from Hurricane Dora passing hundreds of miles to the south, the wildfires on Maui – and to a lesser extent, Hawaii’s Big Island – ignited and spread Tuesday.
The infernos jumped over freeways, barreled through neighborhoods and obliterated homes and businesses.
As of Wednesday evening, “Maui Fire Department reported no significant changes for the Lahaina, Upcountry and Pūlehu/Kīhei fires” on the island, Maui County officials said.
The ongoing drought in Hawaii worsened over the past week, helping fires spread, according to the US Drought Monitor released Thursday.
‘We have no more Lahaina. It’s gone’
In the devastated Maui town of Lahaina, Mark Stefl and Michele Numbers-Stefl have lost their home to a wildfire for the second time in less than five years.
They first saw flames under half a mile from their home on Tuesday before the winds quickly intensified – and the fire suddenly was in their yard, Mark Stefl told CNN on Wednesday.
“We just lost our house again. Twice in four years,” Mark Stefl said.
The first time their home burned to the ground, it was from a quick-moving fire fanned by winds from 2018’s Hurricane Lane. Now, the two-story yellow home they rebuilt is gone, and so are their cat and dog.
“The fire just engulfed our house,” he said. “We have no more Lahaina. It’s gone.”
‘The apocalypse was happening’
May Wedelin-Lee, a 20-year resident of Maui, was at home, just about a block away from the heart of Lahaina, as she watched flames race toward her community Tuesday.
“It didn’t take long: From when the wind shifted until when we were like, ‘We need to go,’ it was maybe five, 10 minutes,” Wedelin-Lee said.
She jumped in her truck and left. Around her, complete chaos.
“It was just panic. People were crying on the side of the road and begging,” she said Thursday. “People jumped in each other’s (cars), people had bicycles, people ran, people had skateboards, people had cats under their arms … just sprinting down the street.”
“The apocalypse was happening. It was the worst nightmare. Imagine the worst you can picture, and it was 1,000 times worse than that.”
With no home – and no job after the restaurant Wedelin-Lee worked in was destroyed – it’s hard to think about anything else other than getting hold of loved ones to make sure they are alive and safe, she said.
“There’s so many unaccounted for, still. So, thinking about tomorrow is not even an issue right now. It’s just finding our friends, finding our families, finding our loved ones,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Michele Numbers-Stefl.
CNN’s Raja Razek, Macie Goldfarb, Taylor Romine, Elizabeth Joseph, Amanda Jackson, Jamiel Lynch, Tori B. Powell, Eric Zerkel, Brandon Miller and Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.