Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (2023)



Supported by


At least 36 people were killed in fires that tore through Maui and leveled entire neighborhoods.

  • 255


Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (1)

By Thomas Fuller

Follow live updates on the deadly wildfires in Maui, Hawaii.

From the air, the town of Lahaina looks incinerated. Charred palm trees are reduced to slender matchsticks protruding into the smoky sky. Homes are ash. Streets are deserted.

“Oh, my Gosh! Unbelievable,” said Richard Olsten as he piloted a helicopter along the Maui coast on Wednesday. “This looks like Baghdad or something.”

The firestorm that tore through the western shores of Hawaii’s Maui island on Tuesday and continued on Wednesday has killed at least 36 people and forced the evacuation of more than 2,000, the authorities said. It was the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, according to Clay Trauernicht, a tropical fire specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

It was a scene familiar to residents of California and other states in the American West that have suffered a spate of hot-burning and fast-moving wildfires. This week they were ravaging a part of the United States that many consider paradise.

“This is not a safe place to be,” Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said at a news conference Wednesday. The state government was trying to stop tourists from arriving on the island, but as late as Wednesday morning, flights filled with tourists were still landing in Maui, she said. “We have shelters that are being overrun. We have resources that are being taxed.”

Ed Sniffen, director of the Hawaii state Department of Transportation, said some 2,000 travelers spent Tuesday night at the airport and another 4,000 people had been stranded by road closures. The situation was “absolutely horrific,” he said.

At least three fires on the island were propelled by strong winds as a hurricane moved across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles to the south. The inferno came so quickly that some residents ran into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames. They were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, Maui County officials said. Others escaped by car, driving past flames in the shadow of the West Maui Mountains.

President Biden ordered all federal assets in Hawaii to assist with the fire response, the White House said. The Coast Guard, the Navy and the Marines were supporting firefighting and rescue efforts, and the Department of Transportation was working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from the island.

The most concentrated damage appeared to be in Lahaina, once the royal capital of Hawaii and now a major tourist hub.

The first signs of disaster for Rachel Zimmerman were the gusts of wind that tore through her condominium, ripping the screens from her windows. Then, around 4:45 a.m. Tuesday, she saw flames in the distance and called the fire department, but it said there was no need to worry, she said. So Ms. Zimmerman went back to sleep.

By the time she awoke, the power was out, and Ms. Zimmerman could smell smoke, so she and her partner decided it was time to go. In the 10 minutes it took to grab their clothes, a bicycle and their dog, the air had become so thick with smoke that they did not know which way to drive in order to get away from the approaching wildfire.

“It was black,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “It happened so fast.”

On Wednesday, she and her partner, both 34, were sheltering at a friend’s home about 20 miles away in the town of Waikapu.

Mr. Olsten, the director of operations at Air Maui Helicopter Tours, flew back and forth across the devastation on Wednesday, even as smoke was still wafting over the azure waters of the Pacific. Entire neighborhoods appeared flattened by fire, with only charred remnants remaining of homes. Some larger structures appeared intact. And some neighborhoods were spared the flames, their lawns still green.

He filmed the scene and posted it to Facebook. In one frame, he captured a single house that remained standing while dozens around it had been rendered into a sickly white ash.

The death toll and wrecked landscape of the town reinforced the grim reality that even corners of the globe generally blessed with plentiful rainfall — and until recently unaccustomed to powerful wildfires — are now, partly because of climate change, much more vulnerable.

In August 2018, a series of fires on Maui destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and tourists. Lionel Montalvo, an official with the Maui County Fire Department, was quoted at the time saying the fire was “unprecedented in our department’s history.”

Three years later, wildfires in Maui and the Big Island tore through more than 40,000 acres of ranchland and brush.

Wildfires in Hawaii are now burning through more than four times the number of acres than in previous decades, according to Professor Trauernicht, at the University of Hawaii.

Experts attribute the surge in wildfires to the prevalence of nonnative grasses, which are especially common on Maui, and are more flammable than indigenous plants. This is coupled with extreme weather patterns connected to climate change: unusually hot and dry summers and shifts in rainfall patterns.

“The grasslands make us incredibly vulnerable,” Professor Trauernicht said.

“We have known there was the potential for this,” he said, referring to incinerated homes in Lahaina, “but I still don’t think any of us could have imagined how destructive and devastating this fire became.”

The island of Maui is the state’s driest at the moment, with much of West Maui facing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Temperatures in Hawaii have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950 and are expected to rise by as much as 5 degrees more by 2085, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials said that they did not know what had caused this week’s wildfires, which spread over at least 1,800 acres on Maui and the Big Island.


Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (3)

On social media, terrifying footage circulated of weathered wooden storefronts on Lahaina’s Front Street, which lines the water, engulfed in flames. Normally, the area is bustling with visitors who browse the shops for surf gear or high-end art and stop for seafood and mai tais at restaurants like Fleetwood’s on Front St., owned by the rock star Mick Fleetwood.

Friends and family members of residents and vacationers posted frantically on Facebook in hopes of reaching loved ones. They asked about their parents, who may have been stuck in traffic, or their siblings who work at resorts, whom they hadn’t heard from since the previous night. Some posted about evacuation centers and donation drop-offs.

Roads into West Maui were closed to everyone except emergency workers on Wednesday morning, officials said, effectively cutting off access from outside to some of Hawaii’s best-known resorts. In Lahaina, a town of about 12,000 people, all roads were closed, officials said.

Wildfires in Hawaii


Hot spots

The National Weather Service on Tuesday had expected winds of up to 45 miles per hour, with gusts of 60 miles per hour, and the agency warned residents to secure property and expect outages and difficult travel.

Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm, remained around 700 miles south of Honolulu on Wednesday and did not make landfall in Hawaii. Although the hurricane was not directly responsible for the conditions in the state, it has helped strengthen the winds, according to Robert Bohlin, a meteorologist in the Weather Service’s Honolulu office.

A firefighter on Maui was hospitalized with smoke inhalation but was in stable condition.


Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (4)


Tracking Dora


5 4 3 2 1 Tropical storm

Area of tropical-storm-force winds Forecast path

Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (5)

Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (6)

Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (7)

Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (8)

Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii (9)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

All times are Hawaii time, which is six hours behind Eastern time.

By William B. Davis

Livia Albeck-Ripka, Mike Ives, Claire Moses, Amanda Holpuch, Shawn Hubler, Judson Jones and Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief. Before moving to California he reported from more than 40 countries for The Times and International Herald Tribune, mainly in Europe and Southeast Asia. More about Thomas Fuller

A version of this article appears in print on , Section


, Page


of the New York edition

with the headline:

Fleeing Into Sea As Deadly Fires Overtake Maui. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


  • 255




Maui Town Is Devastated by Deadliest Wildfire to Strike Hawaii? ›

The wildfire that tore through the West Maui town of Lahaina and the surrounding area, killing at least 67 people, is one of the deadliest wildfires in modern American history.

Did the Maui fire affect Kaanapali? ›

An evacuation order was issued for residents in Kaanapali, north of the devastated town of Lahaina, because of a fire, the Maui Police Department said.

How many people died in Lahaina fire? ›

MAALAEA, Hawaii, Aug 11 (Reuters) - The death toll from the Maui wildfires rose 67 on Friday as search teams combed through the smoldering ruins of Lahaina and Hawaiian officials sought determine to how the inferno spread so rapidly through the historic resort town with little warning.

When was the last wildfire in Maui? ›

An aerial view shows the historic Banyan Tree along with destroyed homes, boats, and buildings burned to the ground in the historic Lahaina town in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 10, 2023.

How many lives lost in Maui fire? ›

Officials have confirmed 80 deaths in the wildfires, but Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen warned the death toll "could go up." Harmful contaminants may have entered the Lahaina water system, Maui County officials have warned.

Is Maui in danger of volcano? ›

Maui volcanoes are safe to visit as the chance of an eruption is very low per the US Geological Survey. Haleakala is considered an active volcano by the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Is Maui in danger of volcano eruption? ›

Haleakalā, the volcano that forms East Maui, erupts every 200 to 500 years. This estimate is reached by averaging the number of eruptions over the past 10,000 years. Because little has changed about the volcano during this time, future eruptions should be expected.

What started the fire in Maui 2023? ›

"We don't know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation — so that's dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry," Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, ...

Who started the fire in Maui? ›

What caused the fire? Brush fires had already ignited on Maui and the island of Hawaii by Tuesday. Those fires were stoked on Wednesday by a combination of low humidity and strong mountain winds, brought by Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm that was moving hundreds of miles to the south across the Pacific Ocean.

Where did Maui steal fire from? ›

To steal fire from his ancestress, Mahuika, Maui slipped out in the night and extinguished all the cooking fires.

How many homes destroyed in Maui? ›

67 confirmed deaths with 'upwards of 1,700' buildings destroyed on Maui.

How many people are missing in Lahaina? ›

Rescue and clean-up crews are now pouring into the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, which has been leveled to ash and rubble in what the governor describes as the state's largest-ever natural disaster. Fast-moving wildfires killed at least 55, and the police chief said it's likely 1,000 people remain unaccounted for.

What happened at Lahaina Maui? ›

At least 55 people have died from the wildfires on Maui and much of the historic town of Lahaina has been "destroyed," according to officials. A state of emergency has been declared for the whole island, while all nonessential travel to the popular vacation destination is being discouraged, officials said.

How many homeless people live on Maui? ›

On Maui, there were a total of 704 homeless individuals, 387 unsheltered, and 317 sheltered. Last year, there were 741 homeless individuals, 436 unsheltered, and 305 sheltered.

Why did Maui destroy all the fires in his camp? ›

He was also curious and a clever person. One day when he was lying on the ground after supper, warming his body from a fire pit, he wondered “Where does this fire comes from?”. To test it himself he destroyed all the fire in his camp and other villages around his area with water.

Has the Maui fire been contained? ›

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated in its press release that 85% of the Lahaina fire was contained, the Pulehu/Kihei fire is 80% contained and the Upcountry Maui fire is only 50% contained.

Has the fire reached Kaanapali? ›

The fire prompted the evacuation of people in Kaanapali in West Maui on Friday night, the Maui Police Department announced on social media. No details of the evacuation were immediately provided.

Has Kaanapali been affected by the fires? ›

The death toll from the wildfires in Maui rose to 80 late Friday, as the Hawaiian island was once again put on edge after flare-ups led to an evacuation order for Kaanapali, a western town immediately to the north of Lahaina, the historic town that was devastated by fires earlier in the week.

Is Lahaina fire contained? ›

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated in its press release that 85% of the Lahaina fire was contained, the Pulehu/Kihei fire is 80% contained and the Upcountry Maui fire is only 50% contained.

Which Maui beach is protected from the wind? ›

Kapalua Bay

For many visitors and Hawaii residents, Kapalua is regarded as one of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii. Edged by two coral reefs and protected from wind, Kapalua Bay offers pristine ocean conditions for snorkeling in West Maui.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Last Updated: 17/12/2023

Views: 6282

Rating: 5 / 5 (70 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Birthday: 1996-05-19

Address: Apt. 114 873 White Lodge, Libbyfurt, CA 93006

Phone: +5983010455207

Job: Legacy Representative

Hobby: Blacksmithing, Urban exploration, Sudoku, Slacklining, Creative writing, Community, Letterboxing

Introduction: My name is Merrill Bechtelar CPA, I am a clean, agreeable, glorious, magnificent, witty, enchanting, comfortable person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.