Satellite images and before-and-after pictures show extent of damage to town of Lahaina on Maui.
Dozens of people have died after fast-spreading wildfires caused devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui and destroyed most of the historic town Lahaina.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green says the fires are the “largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history” and that 80% of the beach-front town is “gone” – satellite images gave an immediate sense of the scale of the damage.
The death toll is expected to rise while hundreds of people could still be missing as firefighters continue to battle the fires.
The western side of the second largest Hawaiian island has been almost entirely cut off and 11,000 people remain without power in the area. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated.
Incredibly strong winds from Hurricane Dora, which passed south of Hawaii on Tuesday, fanned the flames and meant that aircraft could not fly over the town during the fire – but once they had passed, pilots were shocked by what they saw.
“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that,” helicopter pilot Richard Olsten told the Associated Press news agency. “We had tears in our eyes.”
The flames have destroyed most of the buildings in front of the port, including the old courthouse.
The town’s lighthouse has survived but most of the surrounding buildings were destroyed, including oldest hotel in Hawaii – the 122-year-old Pioneer Inn.
The centre of Lahaina dates back to the 1700s and is on the US National Register of Historic Places – it was once Hawaii’s capital.
Satellite firm ICEYE has calculated that about 1,500 buildings have been destroyed in the picturesque resort, which is home to about 12,000 people.
Alice Lee, chair of the Maui County Council, told the BBC World Service’s Newsday programme how the fire razed the “beautiful” Front Street, the town’s main strip.
“The fire traversed almost the entire street, so all the shops and little restaurants that people visited on their trips to Maui, most of them are burnt down to the ground,” Lee said, adding: “So many businesses will have to struggle to recover.”
Former US President Barack Obama – who was born in Hawaii – is among those who has expressed his sorrow at the impact of the blaze. He posted on the X social network (formerly known as Twitter): “It’s tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai’i — a place that’s so special to so many of us.
“Michelle and I are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down.”
The fires have also destroyed many natural features on the island – there are fears for Lahaina’s banyan tree, the oldest in Hawaii, and one of the oldest in the US.
The 60ft-tall (18m) fig tree was planted in 1873, on the place where Hawaiian King Kamehameha’s first palace stood, but it was burnt after fires ravaged the area on Wednesday.
According to the town’s website, if its roots remain healthy it will likely grow back. But at this stage, they say the tree “looks burned”.
Most of the damage was done on Tuesday as the flames engulfed the town.
The blaze ripped through the town so quickly that some people jumped into the harbour to escape the flames and smoke.
The flames were fanned by gusts of wind of up to 65mph (100km/h) that hit the islands earlier this week as Hurricane Dora passed about 700 miles (1,100km) south of Hawaii.
Drought or abnormally dry conditions across large parts of Hawaii – including the entire island of Maui – also played a role.
About 14% of the state is suffering from severe or moderate drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, while 80% of Hawaii is classed as abnormally dry.
Wildfires were once uncommon in Hawaii, ignited largely through volcanic eruptions or lightning strikes. But in recent decades, human activity has made them more common and extreme.
Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfire globally as it drives up temperatures and makes heatwaves longer and more intense.
“We have never experienced a wildfire that affected a city like this before,” Governor Josh Green said, adding that the challenges of climate change were putting unprecedented strain on Hawaii.
By Chris Clayton, Dominic Bailey, Kady Wardell, Mike Hills, Tural Ahmedzade, Paul Sargeant, Gerry Fletcher, Filipa Silverio and Kate Gaynor.
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