Maui wildfire deaths hit 53 as governor warns to brace for more

Click to play video: 'Maui wildfires: Death toll climbs to 55 as Lahaina fire mostly contained'
Maui wildfires: Death toll climbs to 55 as Lahaina fire mostly contained
WATCH: As many as 55 people have now been confirmed dead in the wildfires which tore through sacred Hawaiian land on the island of Maui. Neetu Garcha reports – Aug 11, 2023

Canadians are being warned to avoid non-essential travel to Maui as wildfires continue to torch the Pacific island and the death toll continues to rise, with more fatalities expected to be announced as the scope of the devastation grows clearer.

At least 53 people have died so far in the wildfires on the Hawaiian island, making it one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years.

The fires took the island by surprise when it started earlier this week; they were whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green warned that he expected the death toll from the fires would rise “very significantly” in the coming days.

Click to play video: 'Travel Tips: Canadians returning after wildfires in Maui'
Travel Tips: Canadians returning after wildfires in Maui

The fires have left behind burned-out cars on once busy streets, and smoking piles of rubble where historic buildings had stood in Lahaina Town, which dates to the 1700s and has long been a favorite destination for tourists.

Story continues below advertisement

“Today we signed another emergency proclamation, which will discourage tourists from going to Maui. Even as of this morning, planes were landing on Maui with tourists. This is not a safe place to be,” Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told reporters Wednesday.

Click to play video: '‘Nothing but smoke’: Maui wildfires reduce Lahaina to ashes'
‘Nothing but smoke’: Maui wildfires reduce Lahaina to ashes

“We are strongly discouraging non-essential travel to Maui.”

That warning is being echoed by Canadian authorities. Global Affairs Canada issued a travel advisory Thursday warning against non-essential travel to Maui.

“Canadians are strongly advised to exercise caution, to monitor local news and weather reports and to follow the instructions of local authorities, including evacuation orders,” Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said in a statement.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

Air Canada, which operates one daily flight between Vancouver and Maui, told Global News in a statement Wednesday that the flight scheduled Tuesday was cancelled as the airport on the island was closed.

Story continues below advertisement

As winds eased somewhat on Maui, some flights resumed Wednesday, allowing pilots to view the full scope of the devastation.

Passengers try to sleep below a “Welcome To Maui” billboard on the floor of the airport terminal while waiting for delayed and canceled flights off the island as thousands of passengers were stranded at the Kahului Airport (OGG) in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Kahului, Hawaii on Aug. 9, 2023. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Air Canada flew a larger aircraft from Vancouver on Wednesday evening to pick up those passengers left from Tuesday, as well as passengers scheduled to leave Wednesday night.

“We continuing to monitor the Maui situation very closely as the situation is evolving,” a spokesperson said.

“Air Canada has in place a flexible rebooking policy for passengers to change their flights.”

WestJet also flies into Maui. The airline did not return Global News’ request for comment by publication time.

Click to play video: 'Canadian tourists impacted by Maui wildfires'
Canadian tourists impacted by Maui wildfires

About 11,000 visitors flew out of Maui on Wednesday, with at least another 1,500 expected to leave Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director. Officials prepared the Hawaii Convention Centre in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.

Story continues below advertisement

Southwest Airlines said on Thursday it was increasing the number of flights to Hawaii in response to the Maui wildfires.

United Airlines said that it had canceled flights to Kahului Airport in Hawaii’s Maui and would fly empty planes to the wildfire-hit island to bring passengers back to the mainland.

Separately, Alaska Air flagged some delays because of the wildfires earlier in the day, but said that it was sticking to its regular flight schedule from Maui.

Alaska Air is also adding an extra flight to facilitate rescue efforts and may consider including more depending on the situation, it said.

About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday. With cell service and phone lines down in some areas, many people were struggling to check in with friends and family members living near the wildfires. Some were posting messages on social media.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, from the Hawaii State Department of Defence, told reporters Wednesday night that officials were working to get communications restored, to distribute water, and possibly to add law enforcement personnel. He said National Guard helicopters had dropped 567,811 litres of water on the Maui fires.

Click to play video: 'Hawaii wildfires: Dramatic drone video shows devastation on Maui'
Hawaii wildfires: Dramatic drone video shows devastation on Maui

The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who jumped into the water to escape flames and smoke, including two children.

Story continues below advertisement

Officials haven’t yet been able to determine what ignited the fires, Hara said.

“There’s three conditions that we got from the National Weather Service … dry conditions … low humidity and high winds. … We had all of those three through the end of today, so we knew the conditions were very dangerous for wildfires,” he said.

“The reason it spread so fast is there were reports of gusts of up to 85 miles per hour (136 km/h), so that is so fast and that’s why Maui county had such a hard time doing containment of the fire, and because the winds were so high, we couldn’t provide the helicopters to do the water bucket support.”

Click to play video: 'Maui wildfires: Biden approves disaster declaration amid fears of death toll rise'
Maui wildfires: Biden approves disaster declaration amid fears of death toll rise

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

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Wildfires also burned on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth said, although there had been no reports of injuries or destroyed homes there.

The wildfires in Maui have so far damaged or destroyed 271 structures.

— with files from The Associated Press, Reuters and Global News’ Sean Previl

Sponsored content