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Hawaii fire death toll hits 55, expected to rise

AFP – A terrifying wildfire that left a historic Hawaiian town in charred ruins has killed at least 55 people, authorities said yesterday, making it one of the deadliest disasters in the United States (US) state’s history.

Brushfires on the west coast of Hawaii’s Maui island – fuelled by high winds from a nearby hurricane – broke out on Tuesday and rapidly engulfed the seaside town of Lahaina.

The flames moved so quickly that many were caught off-guard, trapped in the streets or jumping into the ocean in a desperate bid to escape.

The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.

Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc.

“What we’ve seen today has been catastrophic… likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history,” Governor Josh Green said. “In 1960 we had 61 fatalities when a large wave came through Big Island,” he said earlier in the day, referring to a tragedy that struck a year after Hawaii became the 50th US state. “This time, it’s very likely that our death totals will significantly exceed that.”

An aerial view of destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. PHOTO: AFP

Maui County officials said just after 3pm yesterday fatalities stood at 55, and firefighters were still battling the blaze in the town that served as the Hawaiian kingdom’s capital in the early 19th Century.

Pictures taken by an AFP photographer who flew over Lahaina showed it had been reduced to blackened, smoking ruins. The burned skeletons of trees still stand, rising above the ashes of the buildings to which they once offered shelter.

Green said 80 per cent of the town was gone.

Thousands have been left homeless and Green said a massive operation was swinging into action to find accommodation.

President Joe Biden declared the fires a “major disaster” and unblocked federal aid for relief efforts, with rebuilding expected to take years.