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Hawaii fire death toll hits 55, recovery to take years

Marco Garcia -

Maui's wildfires have killed at least 55 people, a toll expected to rise, and unleashed destruction on the Hawaiian resort town of Lahaina that will take many years and billions of dollars to rebuild.

Governor Josh Green said the inferno that reduced much of Lahaina to smouldering ruins was the worst natural disaster in the state's history, turning thousands of people homeless and levelling as many as 1000 buildings.

"It's going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina," Green said told a news conference on Thursday, as officials began to map out a plan to shelter the newly homeless in hotels and tourist rental properties.

"It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image with its own values," Green said of the city that draws two million tourists each year, or about 80 per cent of the island's visitors.

The fast-moving inferno, which started on Tuesday, spread from the brush outside of town and ravaged the historic city of Lahaina that was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

It was one of three major wildfires on Maui, all of them still burning, fuelled by dry conditions, a build-up of fuel and 100km/h gusts of wind.

Even as firefighters continue to put out smaller fires and search and rescue teams almost certainly have yet to recover all the dead, federal recovery dollars have started to flow along with an influx of supplies and equipment.

Among the incoming assistance were cadaver dogs from California and Washington that would aid search and rescue teams combing through the ruins, officials said.

"Understand this: Lahaina town is hallowed, sacred ground right now," Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, referring to remains that have yet to be recovered. 

"We have to get them out."

Thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated from the western side of Maui, which has a year-round population of about 166,000, with some taking shelter on the island or on the neighbouring island of Oahu. 

Tourists camped in the Kahului Airport, waiting for flights back home.

Green said the scope of the disaster would surpass that of 1960, one year after Hawaii became a US state when a tsunami killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Some people fled the flames by jumping into the Pacific Ocean.

Among them was Vixay Phonxaylinkham, a tourist from California, who said he was trapped in a rental car with his wife and children as the fires approached, forcing the family to abandon the car and take refuge in the water.

"We floated around four hours," Phonxaylinkham said from the airport while awaiting a flight off the island, describing how they held onto pieces of wood for flotation.

"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."

Many more people suffered burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

The fate of some of Lahaina's cultural treasures remains unclear.

The historic 18-metre-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III's 19th-century palace stood was still standing, although some of its boughs appeared charred.

Maui County said in a statement the Lahaina fire was 80 per cent contained, as firefighters secured the perimeter of the wild land areas that burned.

The Pulehu fire, about 30km east of Lahaina, was 70 per cent contained. 

There was no estimate for the Upcountry fire in the centre of the eastern mass of the island, Maui County said.

Scenes of fiery devastation have become all too familiar elsewhere in the world this summer.

Wildfires, often caused by record-setting heat, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe.

In western Canada, a series of unusually severe fires sent clouds of smoke over vast swaths of the US, polluting the air.

Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say.

Marco Garcia - AAP


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