By Rich McKay and Julia Harte
(Reuters) – Fires fanned by the winds of a distant hurricane devastated parts of Hawaii’s Maui and Big Island on Wednesday, forcing some residents to evacuate and turning beloved tourist destinations on the tropical islands into flaming infernos.
Some Maui residents jumped into the ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them, according to a Maui County press release. The American Red Cross opened an evacuation centre in Maui High School, the county said.
Official details on the extent of casualties and building damages were scant early on Wednesday morning, but panicked residents fleeing the flames posted videos and photos on social media showing apocalyptic clouds of smoke billowing up over formerly paradisiacal beaches and palm trees.
The situation in Hawaii mirrored scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe.
Scientists say that human-caused climate change – driven by fossil fuel use – is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events. They have long warned government officials to drastically reduce emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
The National Weather Service said the current brush fires arise from a mix of conditions: dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity. According to the University of Hawaii, large fires are an almost annual occurrence in some parts of the Hawaiian archipelago, though the scope of these fires is unusual.
By Tuesday night, hundreds of acres had already burned and roads and schools had closed in parts of Hawaii and Maui Counties, according to an emergency proclamation issued by acting Hawaii Governor Sylvia Luke. Hawaii County encompasses the Big Island, which lies south of Maui.
In Maui, the fires destroyed parts of Lahaina, a residential and tourist area with a commercial district in West Maui, and Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous Upcountry region, the proclamation said.
By early Wednesday, Maui County had closed all roads into and in Lahaina Town. West Maui was closed to everyone except emergency workers and those evacuating the area, including Kahekili Highway, according to its social media postings.
Maui County officials moved several evacuation sites at local civic centres farther away from Lahaina and other areas affected by the fires, to new sites including the Maui High School as precautionary measures.
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Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin told USA TODAY on Wednesday that fires were also affecting Kihei, home to a mix of residential homes, condominiums, short-term vacation rentals and visitor facilities in South Maui.
Officials say the winds from Hurricane Dora have fanned the flames across the Island state. Hurricane Dora was about 795 miles south-southwest of Hawaii as of 5 a.m. local time, the National Hurricane Center said.
But gale warnings remained in effect for all of the Hawaiian islands, according to the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Honolulu, with high winds of 45 mph with wind gusts of 60 mph possible.
The National Weather Service in Hawaii also issued a “red flag warning” advising residents of conditions conducive to starting fires or spreading of existing fires in “most leeward areas of all Hawaiian Islands” as of 3 a.m. local time on Wednesday.