Dissipating smoke and ash revealed the sheer devastation that a wildfire left behind in Lahaina Town, one of Hawaii’s most historic cities and onetime capital of the former kingdom.
At least 36 people were killed and hundreds of structures were damaged or destroyed in the blaze that sparked Tuesday and quickly spread throughout the western Maui community of less than 13,000 residents.
It’s feared that the fire consumed much of 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, becoming more trunklike features that expand the size of the tree – as well as other parts of Lahaina.
As the fires rage, tourists were advised to stay away, and 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 Center in Honolulu to take in the thousands who have been displaced.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot with tour operator Air Maui, said he and other pilots and mechanics flew over the scene Wednesday before work to take stock.
“All the places that are tourist areas, that are Hawaiian history, are gone, and that can’t be replaced. You can’t refurbish a building that’s just ashes now. It can’t be rebuilt – it’s gone forever,” he said.
“It’s a huge impact and blow on the history of Hawaii and Maui and Lahaina,” Mr. Olsten said.
For Francine Hollinger, a Native Hawaiian, the news was painful since Front Street represented history.
“It’s like losing a family member … because they’ll never be able to rebuild it, like we wouldn’t be able to bring back our mother or father,” she said.
The fires were whipped by strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south. It’s the latest in a series of disasters caused by extreme weather around the globe this summer. Experts say climate change is increasing the likelihood of such events.
The vegetation in the lowland areas of Maui is particularly parched this year, with below-average precipitation in the spring, and hardly any rainfall this summer.
Wildfires aren’t unusual in Hawaii, but the weather of the past few weeks created the fuel for a devastating blaze and, once ignited, the high winds created the disaster, said Thomas Smith an associate professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The Lahaina Historic District includes the downtown, Front Street, and neighboring areas, and is home to more than 60 historic sites, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
A National Historic Landmark since 1962, it encompasses more than 16,000 acres and covers ocean waters stretching a mile offshore from the storied buildings.
One of them is the 200-year-old, two-story stone Wainee Church, later renamed Waiola, which has kings and queens buried in its graveyard. Its hall, which can seat up to 200 people, was photographed apparently engulfed in flames this week.
After King Kamehameha unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs, he made Lahaina his royal residence. His successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845, according to the National Park Service.
“It was really the political center for Hawaii,” said Davianna McGregor, a retired professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Lahainaluna High School was where royalty and chiefs were educated, and also where King Kamehameha III and his Council of Chiefs drafted the first Declaration of Rights of the People and the Constitution for the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“So in that transition, from going from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the ruling chiefs in and around Lahaina and those educated at Lahainaluna played very prominent roles in our governance at that time,” Ms. McGregor said.
The capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845, but Lahaina’s palace remained a place where royalty would visit.
Lahaina also has a rich history of whaling, with more than 400 ships a year visiting for weeks at a time in the 1850s. Crew members sometimes clashed with missionaries on the island.
Sugar plantations and fishing boosted the economy over the decades, but tourism is the main driver now. Nearly 3 million visitors came to Maui last year, many of whom came to the historic city.
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.”
Mr. 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.
“If you went there, you could still see the name etched in the cement,” Mr. Imada said.
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 harbor.
“It’s just sort of hard to believe that it’s not there,” Mr. Imada said. “Everything that I remember the place to be is not there anymore.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Mark Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska. AP video journalist Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed.