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The wildfires in Maui are unusually destructive due to Hurricane Dora's winds

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Hawaii last night, dramatic wildfires swept across parts of Hawaii Island and Maui. Authorities have confirmed six deaths so far. Roads and schools have been closed. Hundreds of people have been evacuated.

CLINT HANSEN: I was fortunate enough to get out of Lahaina yesterday in just the nick of time. I was on some dirt roads and able to bypass some of the traffic that they weren't letting through because of downed power lines and things of that nature.

KELLY: Clint Hansen sells real estate in Maui and said the flames whipped through the town of Lahaina with unexpected ferocity.

HANSEN: When the fires rekindled from the day before, it was so sudden and so fast, everybody was caught off guard. And the winds were so rapid, it just blew through the town.

KELLY: Emergency crews are still out there battling the fires. For the latest details, let's go to Honolulu, where we find Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman. Hey, Bill.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Hey, aloha, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How did these fires start?

DORMAN: You know, the starting point for this is a relatively hot and dry summer here. But what took this to an unexpected level of destruction is Hurricane Dora. That storm passed about 500 miles south of Hawaii, but that was close enough to send high winds whipping across parts of the state. On Tuesday, those winds on the Big Island peaked at more than 80 miles an hour. On Maui, they topped 60 miles an hour. And those are unusually strong winds. And those were the two islands most affected. Although impacts have been felt across the islands, including some power outages here on Oahu as well.

KELLY: OK. So power outages, I mentioned all these roads and schools are shut. What more do we know about the extent of the damage?

DORMAN: The most severe damage is definitely on Maui, especially in the port town of Lahaina. We heard that sound before from gentlemen who evacuated there. Overnight, local news reports of people jumping into the water to escape flames - the Coast Guard says they rescued 12 people from waters off the town. And more broadly, information's still coming together - land burned so far estimated at nearly 2,000 acres, evacuations in the hundreds, reports of power outages, as you mentioned, affecting thousands of people. Schools reporting all but two schools on Maui are closed today. And as you mentioned, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen confirmed at least six people have died. When it comes to injuries, hospitals on Maui reporting admissions for both burns and smoke inhalation - some burn patients have also been flown to Honolulu for treatment.

KELLY: Correct me if I'm wrong here, Bill, but I feel like I don't hear as much most years about wildfires on Hawaii causing this level of chaos. How common is this?

DORMAN: No, you're right. It's not common at all - this level of disruption, unusual for wildfires. You know, it's more often associated with hurricanes, tropical storms...

KELLY: Yeah.

DORMAN: ...Even volcanic eruptions. But wildfires are common in Hawaii. They're a seasonal occurrence. It's been relatively hot and dry across much of the state recently. But again, what really made the difference was these strong winds from Hurricane Dora. And that combined with the dry fuel really turned that into a major set of fires, and the extent of that destruction is definitely not common.

KELLY: So what are you watching for in the coming hours, coming days?

DORMAN: Mayor Richard Bissen of Maui County said they're still fighting three fires on the island. Mitch Roth of Hawaii Island says at least three fires also still being battled on the Big Island. One development, acting Governor Sylvia Luke announced an emergency proclamation discouraging tourists from going to Maui. And they're moving people off of Maui here to Oahu - emergency officials opening the convention center here in Honolulu to take people coming in from Maui, primarily tourists. Fire situation continues - red flag warning for much of the state on the leeward, drier sides, increased risk of fire and emergency proclamation now covering all counties. We continue to learn more about the severity of the devastation of this event.

KELLY: OK. Thank you, Bill.

DORMAN: Thank you. Aloha.

KELLY: Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bill Dorman
Bill Dorman has been the news director of Hawai‘i Public Radio since February 2011. Born in New York City, he spent 21 years at CNN in various positions behind the scenes and on the air in Atlanta, New York, Washington DC, and Tokyo, Japan. He was also managing editor of Asia Pacific Broadcast for Bloomberg News for five years before moving to Hawai‘i in 2009. He’s covered stories from more than twenty countries and territories.