Two days after the fires on Hawaii’s Maui island started, the reality of that “nightmare” set in for Katie O’Connor.
“I hadn’t shed any tears until this morning. We just feel like it’s a nightmare and that it can’t be happening,” she said Thursday.
“Especially Lahaina, when you see the photos, it’s like an apocalypse. It’s like you can’t even believe that it is all gone,” O’Connor told Global News. “And then I’m still looking out to palm trees and greenery behind me, but half an hour away, they have absolutely nothing.
“It’s just been devastating to see how quickly, especially through Lahaina, it has just wiped out the entire town.”
Fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took the island by surprise, racing through parched growth and neighbourhoods in the historic town of Lahaina, a tourist destination that dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.
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O’Connor lives in Kihei, in south Maui. She and her husband moved there two years ago from Calgary.
She and her family faced an “emotional roller coaster” on Tuesday, when fires came very close to her home.
“Around 9:00 p.m., we started hearing that the fire from upcountry was moving down the hill towards us in Kihei and that we would have to likely evacuate,” O’Connor said.
“I was on the highway driving home around nine and you could just see orange glow all over the island. You could see flames approaching us. It was about a mile from our house at that point and the glow over the mountain towards Lahaina was just crazy.
“Smoke and orange glow everywhere.”
O’Connor and her husband packed up some belongings and their two dogs and at around 11 p.m. they got word to evacuate toward the north shore where there was no imminent fire danger.
An overnight stay in her husband’s office on the north shore was where they waited for officials to tell them they could return the next morning.
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“Our home was luckily untouched,” she said. “And then we spent the rest of the day yesterday just waiting and watching. You could see from the second storey of our home helicopters dropping water over the fire right behind our house.”
Winds from passing Hurricane Dora fanned the flames on the island.
Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that countries must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
The wildfire that swept through the resort town of Lahaina killed at least 36 people, authorities said on Thursday, leaving behind smoldering ruins and forcing thousands to flee the onetime capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Hawaii wildfires kill 36 as historic town of Lahaina torched: “Everything’s gone”
O’Connor said Maui is a “very tight community” and counts herself fortunate that no immediate friends or family are missing following what seems to be the worst of the fires.
“But I certainly do know of people that are waiting to hear from loved ones. We unfortunately know of somebody that did lose their spouse over there (in Lahaina) yesterday,” she said. “So it’s… it’s a lot.”
All of Maui is experiencing drought conditions, with more than half of the island experiencing moderate to severe drought.
Global warming has led to the state receiving 90 per cent less rain in the past century when compared to the previous century.
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Katherine Steilo-Gracia, who moved to Kihei from Edmonton nearly 12 years ago, evacuated to a friend’s house that was out of the fire’s danger zone.
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“We wanted to keep space at the shelters for people that really needed it. So that’s why we chose to go to a friend’s house,” she said.
Steilo-Gracia said state and county authorities did a great job of communicating and caring for people, given the circumstances.
“The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated spots in the entire world. You know, we’re literally out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s terrifying,” Stelio-Gracia said.
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O’Connor agreed with the sentiment.
“It’s tough when you’re on an island. I mean, I absolutely feel for the Alberta wildfires, and I’ve grown up experiencing that but, of course, now that I am right in the thick of it, it hits much closer to home,” she said.
“The reality that we are stuck on an island is scary.”
Steilo-Gracia laments the losses in the Lahaina fire.
Aerial videos showed much of the west Maui town razed to the ground and vehicles burned to a crisp.
Beyond the human casualties, the fire burned cultural treasures such as Lahaina’s historic 18.3-metre-tall banyan tree, which marked the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood, according to local reports.
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“All of Front Street is completely burnt to ashes. The banyan tree that me and my family – the famous banyan tree – that we used to climb and play on as kids, that’s 160 years old, is gone,” she told Global News.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said the island had “been tested like never before in our lifetime.”
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”
U.S. President Joe Biden declared a major disaster on Maui on Thursday. He ordered all available federal assets to help with the response and said the Hawaii National Guard had mobilized helicopters to help with fire suppression as well as search and rescue efforts.
Canadians are being warned to avoid non-essential travel to the Hawaiian island as wildfires continue to burn.
–with files from The Associated Press and Reuters