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Hawaii wildfire updates: Loss of life ‘expected’ as Maui fires rage


(NEW YORK) — Officials say they expect “loss of life” as ferocious wildfires, whipped by strong winds and very dry conditions, are wreaking havoc in Hawaii, prompting evacuations, rescues and school closures and prompting an emergency proclamation from the acting governor.

Gov. Josh Green will be returning to the islands immediately due to the wildfire emergency, his office announced in a statement Wednesday.

“Heroic efforts by first responders have prevented many casualties from occurring, but some loss of life is expected. Our entire emergency response team, including the Hawai‘i National Guard has mobilized and is being supported by FEMA,” Green said in a statement Wednesday.

The proclamation was issued for Hawaii’s Maui and Hawaii counties on Tuesday by acting Gov. Sylvia Luke. On Wednesday, the emergency proclamation was extended to all counties and non-essential air travel to Maui is now being discouraged. All affected state agencies have also been ordered to assist with the evacuation.

The proclamation encourages visitors in West Maui to depart the island as soon as safe and practicable.

Wildfires are spreading rapidly in very dry conditions stemming from a drought over West Maui combined with powerful trade winds being squeezed across Hawaii. The winds are being caused by a strong high pressure system to the north and a strong low pressure system — Hurricane Dora — well to the south.

“We are closely following the wildfires caused by the strong winds of Hurricane Dora,” Luke said. “The safety of our residents is paramount, and this emergency proclamation will activate the Hawaii National Guard to support emergency responders in the impacted communities.”

In addition to Hawaii’s National Guard being activated to assist with the fires on Maui and the Big Island, the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division will be sending helicopters to help with fire suppression if the winds die down enough, according to Jeff Hickman, a spokesman for Hawaii’s Department of Defense.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for the leeward portions of all Hawaiian Islands.

There have been no confirmed fatalities as of Wednesday morning, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Communication is spotty on the island and 911 is down in areas of West Maui, according to the state’s EMA.

As of Tuesday night, six fires have burned over 1,800 acres across Maui and the Big Island. Officials said the situation on Maui is very dynamic and fast-moving.

Evacuations were in place Tuesday near two fires burning near Maui — the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires, county officials said.

“Multiple structures have burned and multiple evacuations are in place, as firefighter crews continue battling brush and structure fires in Upcountry and Lahaina areas,” officials said in a statement, “In West Maui, fire crews from Napili, Lahaina, Kihei and Wailuku responded to the fast-moving fire, which was fueled by strong winds as Hurricane Dora passed well south of Hawaii.”

The U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies are also responding.

“A @USCG 45-foot Response Boat Medium crew from Station Maui has successfully rescued 12 individuals from the waters off Lahaina,” the guard’s Hawaii Pacific patrol said on social media.

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The individuals are believed to have jumped into the water to escape the flames, according to the state’s EMA.

The guard’s Cutter Kimball was headed to Maui to “enhance efforts,” the statement said.

Travel headaches

There has been no formal closure of Kahului Airport, the main airport on Maui, but there have been disruptions from the smoke. Travelers should check with their airlines for their flight status, according to the EMA.

About 1,800 people sheltered at Kahului Airport overnight, according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation.

The Hawaii DOT has also urged visitors to leave Maui if possible and not travel to the island. The warnings have caused panic on flights headed to the island.

An Alaska Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Maui has been delayed for hours and twice allowed passengers off the plane after being told about the conditions on the island.

“I was going to West Maui but don’t know if I am anymore because I guess it’s on fire and they’re evacuating people to Honolulu,” Sam Herring, a passenger still on the plane, told ABC News. “I was going to stay with somebody I know on the west side but now I guess I’m going to sleep in the rental car.”

Weather conditions

Due to weather conditions — east winds 30 to 45 mph with gusts up to around 60 mph and 35% to 45% humidity through the afternoon hours on Wednesday — any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly. Strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior, according to the NWS.

Wind speeds will continue to trend lower Wednesday and Thursday as the high pressure center north of the islands and Hurricane Dora, currently south of the state, continue to move westward.

Very dry fuels combined with strong and gusty easterly winds and low humidity will produce critical fire weather conditions through the afternoon hours.

ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Will Carr, Timmy Truong and Marilyn Heck have contributed to this report.

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