It’s a devastating blow for Hawaii — the wildfires that overtook the town of Lahaina on Maui reducing what was once the royal kingdom of the Hawaiian islands to a pile of smouldering rubble and ash.
Wildfires fanned by strong winds have killed at least 36 people and left island residents reeling over the loss of culturally significant monuments and buildings.
Lahaina is dense with Native Hawaiian history and culture. The city was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha III, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other island chiefs. His successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845.
Kings and queens are buried in the graveyard of the 200-year-old stone Wainee Church. Later named Waiola, the church that once sat up to 200 people was photographed going up in flames this week.
Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of structures were damaged or destroyed in the blaze that ignited Tuesday and quickly spread throughout the western Maui community of less than 13,000 residents.
The fire consumed much of Lahaina’s historic Front Street, home to restaurants, bars, stores and what is believed to be the United States’ largest banyan, a fig tree with roots that grow out of branches and eventually reach the soil like new trunks.
While footage of the banyan tree shows it still standing, it’s not yet known if the tree will survive in the aftermath of the inferno.
Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, after the U.S. Civil Air Patrol and the Maui fire department conducted flyovers of the area.
Video footage showed neighbourhoods and businesses razed and vehicles burned to a crisp across the western side of the U.S. island as the wildfires cut off several roads.
The cause of the fires has yet to be determined, but the National Weather Service said the fires were fuelled by a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity.
The blazes began on Tuesday night as powerful winds from Hurricane Dora, hundreds of kilometres to the southwest, fanned the flames. By Thursday, the strong winds had largely abated, giving the world a better glimpse of the vast destruction in Lahaina.
The fire is “just going to change everything,” said Lee Imada, who worked at the Maui News for 39 years, including the last eight as managing editor until his retirement in 2020.
“It’s just hard to register, even right now, what the full impact of this is going to be.”
Drag the button to see Maxar satellite imagery of the Banyan Court area before and after the Lahaina wildfire.
Imada lives in Waikapu, on Maui, but has ancestral ties to Lahaina going back generations. His mother’s family owned a chain of popular general stores, and his granduncles ran the location on Front Street until it closed around 60 years ago.
He recalled walking down Front Street among the tourists as they shopped or ate, looking at the banyan tree, and enjoying the beautiful ocean views from the harbour.
“It’s just sort of hard to believe that it’s not there,” Imada said. “Everything that I remember the place to be is not there anymore.”
The is not the first time Lahaina has fallen victim to fire, reports the Star-Advertiser.
In 1919, on New Year’s Day, a fire broke out and burned down more than 30 buildings before the townspeople banded together to put it out.
According to the outlet, that fire led to the organization of Maui’s fire department and other fire safety measures.
Drag the button to see Maxar satellite imagery showing the before and after of the total destruction of southern Lahaina.
Officials said on Wednesday that the fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous Upcountry region. Fires were also affecting Kihei in South Maui.
Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke told a press conference late on Wednesday that officials were still assessing the damage.
“It will be a long road to recovery,” she said.
More than 11,000 travellers were evacuated from Maui, Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation said late on Wednesday. Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island.
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.
The airline 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.
Drag the button to see Maxar satellite imagery of the Lahaina Square and shops before and after the wildfire.
“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.
— With files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea, Reuters and The Associated Press