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Tourists fleeing Hawaii wildfire tell of ‘war zone’

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Picture: REUTERS – Smoke billows near a Lahaina hotel as wildfires destroyed the historic town on Hawaii’s Maui island, this week.

By REUTERS and AFP

Tourists fleeing Hawaii’s deadly wildfire told how they had been trapped without food and power for days but felt lucky to be escaping somewhere that “looks like a war zone”. Dozens of people died when a fast-moving fire tore through the historic town of Lahaina, destroying hundreds of buildings on Maui Island.

Thousands of locals have been left homeless, and tourists have been urged to leave to free up resources and allow the authorities to help those in desperate need.

Lorraina Peterson, 46, was honeymooning on the paradise island when the wildfire trapped her and hundreds of others in their hotel. “We were stuck in our rooms for three days,” she said as she waited for a flight from the airport in Kahului. Peterson, from California, said the hotel had been using a back-up generator, but then that failed. “The elevator stopped running and some people were stuck inside the elevator,” she said. The guests were finally evacuated to the airport when the hotel ran out of food, she said.

Vixay Phonxaylinkham, a tourist from Fresno, California, said he was trapped on Lahaina’s Front Street in a rental car with his wife and children as the fires approached, forcing the family to abandon the car and jump into the Pacific Ocean. They held on to pieces of wood for floatation. “We floated around four hours,” Phonxaylinkham said from the airport while awaiting a flight off the island. “It was a vacation that turned into a nightmare. I heard explosions everywhere, I heard screaming, and some people didn’t make it. I feel so sad,” he said.

Canadian Brandon Wilson had travelled to Hawaii with his wife to celebrate their 25th anniversary. But two days after they arrived, the fires cut the power to their AirBnB. By Thursday morning they were running low on food and had no cash to buy groceries, so they decided to try to leave. “As we drove through Lahaina it looked like a war zone,” he said. “It really looks like somebody came along and just bombed the whole town. It’s completely devastated. “It was really hard to see,” he said, sobbing. “You feel so bad for people. They lost their homes, their lives, their livelihoods.”

The wildfire that scorched Lahaina and left it in charred ruins has killed at least 55 people, the authorities said, making it one of the deadliest disasters in the US state’s history. Several brush fires on the west coast of Hawaii’s Maui Island – fuelled by high winds from a nearby hurricane – rapidly engulfed the seaside town. 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. “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 on Thursday, 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.”

Maui County officials said firefighters were battling the blaze in the town that served as the Hawaiian kingdom’s capital in the early 19th century. Green said 80 percent of the town of Lahaina was gone. “We are going to need to house thousands of people,” he told a press conference. “That will mean reaching out to all of our hotels and those in the community to ask people to rent extra rooms at their property.”

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