President Biden pledges immediate help for Hawaii wildfires survivors. Follow live updates The Denver Post

By REBECCA BOONE (Associated Press)

Follow live updates about wildfires racing across part of Maui in Hawaii, destroying sections of a historic town on the island and forcing some to flee to the relative safety of the ocean, where the Coast Guard rescued them. The fires forced evacuations in some areas, including the popular tourist spot of Lahaina. The National Weather Service says Hurricane Dora, which is passing south of the island chain at a safe distance, was partly to blame for strong winds driving the flames, knocking out power and grounding firefighting helicopters.

President Joe Biden spoke about the Hawaii wildfires while traveling in Utah, pledging that federal disaster response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or who’s home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.”

Biden promised to streamline requests for federal assistance and said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on Maui. He also ordered all available Coast Guard and Air Force personnel on the island to work with the Hawaii National Guard to help.

“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii. But not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.

Officials are still trying to get a handle on the fires’ progress but know that they’re not fully contained, Hawaii Emergency Management spokesman Adam Weintraub in Honolulu said.

“We are still in life preservation mode. Search and rescue is still a primary concern,” he said. “Our search and rescue teams from Maui and supporting agencies are not able to do their job until the fire lines are secure and they’re sure that they’re going to be able to get to those areas safely.”

He asked the world for patience as officials try to get control of the crisis

“I think that there is a great temptation to shift immediately to what went wrong, who’s to blame. What we have here is a natural disaster,” he said. “There may have been questions that need to be examined about whether it was handled in the right way. But we still got people in danger. We still have people who don’t have homes. We still have people who can’t find their loved ones.”

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers headed to Maui on Thursday morning to assess the damage from devastating wildfires, Schatz wrote on social media.

Emergency rescue, recovery and firefighting operations were still underway, so the group would be careful not to interfere with those efforts, Schatz wrote on the X platform, previously known as Twitter.

“Winds are finally backing off. The number of dead continues to rise,” Schatz wrote, thanking people for their solidarity with Maui.

So far, officials have confirmed 36 deaths from the wildfires that swept across parts of Maui this week, driven by fierce winds from a hurricane that was passing far south of the island chain. Dozens more people were injured, and more than 270 structures were damaged or destroyed in the fire. One of the hardest-hit areas was the historic town of Lahaina, where some people had to jump into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 14 people from the ocean off Lahaina, including two young children who were reunited with family members.

The damage assessment will help Hawaii’s leaders get a better idea of what kind of federal aid is needed for the recovery efforts.

In a Facebook post, the governor asked that Hawaii’s residents provide all the emotional and financial support they can to residents of Lahaina and Maui, calling the wildfires “the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in generations.”

“I pledge to spare no resources to combat the destructive wildfires, shelter the displaced, treat and bring comfort to the traumatized, support our first responders, restore communication lines and enlist the aid of our federal and county partners to confront this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe,” Green wrote.

President Joe Biden has approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, clearing the way for federal aid to help the state recover from devastating wildfires in Maui.

The White House made the announcement Thursday. The federal funding will include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover damaged uninsured property and other programs for Maui residents and businesses suffering losses from the fires.

Biden spoke with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green by phone and offered his condolences for the lives lost and land destroyed by the wildfires, the White House said.

A mass evacuation effort will resume Thursday morning for visitors and residents stranded just north of a historic town in Maui that was destroyed by a wildfire this week, officials said.

Buses will pick up people in Kaanapali, north of Lahaina, taking visitors directly to the Kahului Airport and residents to a shelter in central Maui, the county of Maui announced on Facebook.

The wildfires, driven by strong winds from a hurricane passing far to the south of the island chain, raced through Lahaina and other parts of Maui on Tuesday night. At least 36 people died and dozens more were injured, officials said, and more than 271 structures were damaged or destroyed. The fire is the deadliest since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and virtually razed the town of Paradise.

The main road that runs along the western coastline of Maui — also the only road in and out of Lahaina — was closed to most traffic while firefighting and emergency rescue efforts continued.

Officials in Hawaii warned Thursday that the death toll — already at 36 — could rise, with the fires still burning and teams spreading out to search charred areas.

Search-and-rescue teams are fanning out in the devastated areas in the hopes of finding survivors, Adam Weintraub, communication director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Addressing the fear that there could be additional deaths, Weintraub acknowledged that “these were large and fast-moving fires, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to get our arms around them and contain them. So, we’re hoping for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst.”

The death toll from wildfires in Hawaii rose to at least 36, according to a statement from Maui County on Wednesday night.

Wildfires, whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, took the island of Maui by surprise, leaving behind burned-out cars on once busy streets and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood. Flames roared throughout the night, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.

Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed and dozens of people injured.

The fires left a swath of devastation for blocks in the historic town of Lahaina. Aerial video from the town showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, including on Front Street, where tourists once gathered to shop and dine.

President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening that he has ordered “all available Federal assets” to help combat wildfires that have devastated parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least six people.

The president said the Coast Guard and Navy are supporting response and rescue efforts, while the Marines are providing Black Hawk helicopters to fight the fires. The Hawaii National Guard has mobilized Chinook helicopters to help with fire suppression and search and rescue operations.

Biden said the Transportation Department is working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from the island, while the Interior and Agriculture departments “stand ready to support post fire recovery efforts.”

In his statement, the president offered “condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones” and expressed gratitude toward “the brave firefighters and first responders who continue to run toward danger.”

Firefighting crews were continuing to battle fires in Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry, the County of Maui said on Facebook Wednesday afternoon. More than 2,100 people were housed overnight in four emergency shelters, the county said. Another 2,000 travelers were sheltering at the Kahului Airport.

The wildfires ripping through Maui left a swath of devastation for blocks in the historic town of Lahaina, videos and photos of the tourist destination show.

Historic buildings along Lahaina’s popular Front Street were charred and flattened skeletons on Wednesday, powerlines were draped across roadways and abandoned cars were blackened husks.

Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot for a tour company, flew over the fire site on Wednesday and was shocked by a scene where it “looked like a bomb went off.”

“It’s horrifying. I’ve flown here 52 years and I’ve never seen anything come close to that. We had tears in our eyes, the other pilots on board and the mechanics and me,” he said, recalling even the boats in the harbor were burned.

“We never thought we’d experience anything like this in our whole life,” he continued.

Lahaina holds strong cultural significance. It was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom under Kings Kamehameha II and III from 1820 to 1845 and served as a main port for the North Pacific whaling fleet, according to the National Park Service.

“We got out in the nick of time yesterday,” recalled Lahaina resident Keʻeaumoku Kapu. He was at the cultural center he runs in the historic section of town Tuesday, tying down lose objects in the wind, when his wife showed up at around 4 p.m. and said they needed to evacuate. “Right at that time, things got crazy. The wind started picking up,” he said.

Two blocks away they saw fire and billowing smoke. Kapu, his wife and a friend jumped into his pickup truck. “By the time we turned around, our building was on fire. It was that quick.”

They didn’t have time to pack up anything at their cultural center, Na Aikane o Maui, where they “had years and years of research material, artifacts,” he said.

They drove south to Maalaea, where they spent the night in the truck.

“Every time the wind blows, oh man, it’s like reliving it again,” Kapu said.

He said winds were still strong Wednesday. He got word that his home, in a section of Lahaina closer to the mountains, was OK. But he was eager to see for himself. He said, “there’s probably a couple hundred people here waiting for the roads to open.”

Officials are preparing the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to accommodate up to 4,000 people displaced by the wildfires that swept across parts of Maui.

James Tokioka, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the center is not just for tourists, but also for locals.

“Local people have lost everything,” he said. “They’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their animals.”

Kahului Airport, the main airport in Maui, was sheltering 2,000 travelers whose flights were canceled or who recently arrived on the island, the county said on Facebook. The tourists were among those expected to be brought to the convention center.


Associated Press journalist Mark Thiessen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska; Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles; Audrey McAvoy, Clair Rush and Jennifer Kelleher from Honolulu; Christopher Megerian contributed from Salt Lake City, Utah; and Caleb Jones from Concord, Massachusetts.

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