Fast-moving wildfires on the island of Maui in Hawaii have killed six people and overwhelmed some residents so suddenly that they were forced to take refuge in the Pacific Ocean late Tuesday.
The blazes intensified on Tuesday and continued into Wednesday as gusty mountain winds were amplified by Hurricane Dora, which was moving across the Pacific hundreds of miles to the south.
Six people have been confirmed dead on the island of Maui, Richard T. Bissen, Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said at a news conference on Wednesday morning. Search and rescue crews were looking for more people in the area.
More than 2,100 people were in evacuation shelters, Mr. Bissen said.
On the western side of Maui, some residents fled by swimming into the ocean, where they were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, Maui County officials said. Others escaped by car, driving past flames in the shadow of the West Maui Mountains.
The town of Lahaina, once the royal capital of Hawaii and home to a famed banyan tree, was believed to have been particularly hard hit by the fires, according to Hawaii News Now. Footage showed that several shops and restaurants on the town’s Front Street were damaged in the fire. Old Lahaina Luau, an oceanfront restaurant in the town, said in a Facebook post late on Tuesday that it had lost electricity for 16 hours and had only minimal cell and internet service.
Roads into West Maui were closed to everyone except emergency workers on Wednesday morning, officials said, effectively cutting off access from outside to some of Hawaii’s best-known resorts. In Lahaina, a town of about 12,000 people, all roads were closed, officials said.
Hawaii is better known for its tropical conditions and bouts of intense rain, but the islands have become increasingly prone to wildfire damage because of climate change. The island of Maui is the state’s driest at the moment, with much of West Maui facing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This year has not been especially dry when compared to drought data over the past two decades, however.
The National Weather Service on Tuesday had expected winds of up to 45 miles per hour, with gusts of 60 miles per hour, and the agency warned residents to secure property and expect outages and difficult travel.
Dora, a Category 4 storm, remained more than 700 miles south of Honolulu on Wednesday and did not make landfall in Hawaii. Although the hurricane was not directly responsible for the conditions in the state, it has helped strengthen the winds, according to Robert Bohlin, a meteorologist in the Weather Service’s Honolulu office.
A firefighter on Maui was hospitalized with smoke inhalation but was in stable condition.
The fires in Hawaii and Maui Counties had already burned hundreds of acres by Tuesday, Sylvia Luke, Hawaii’s acting governor, said in an emergency proclamation that activated the National Guard.
In Maui County, there were more than 15,800 power outages, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages across the United States.
The 911 emergency call service in West Maui was down early on Wednesday, and people were told to call the local police department directly instead, Maui County officials said.
All public schools in Maui were closed on Wednesday, except for one high school and one elementary school on the east side of the island, the Hawaii Department of Education said.
Several parts of Maui were under evacuation orders. Two evacuation shelters closed because of the encroaching fire, and people inside were sent to new locations, Maui County officials said.
Margo Brousseau, 52, said that she could smell smoke at one evacuation site, Kihei Community Center, before the shelter was closed.
She and her family, who are visiting from Minneapolis, had been planning to spend the night at the shelter’s parking lot in a van that they rented after their flight home was canceled on Tuesday night.
Ms. Brousseau said that the airline staff told them: “There is nowhere we can put you because all of these hotels don’t have power and all these people are being evacuated from their own resorts, so we don’t have anywhere to offer you.”
They rented the van and went to see if they could find a hotel, but everywhere was closed or booked. Staff at one hotel gave her family towels to use as blankets and suggested places to park overnight.
Her family ended up at an evacuation site at Maui High School, where a worker told her there were more than 1,200 people inside. She said that people had cots and blankets on the ground; many people were still awake just before 3 a.m. local time.
Ms. Brousseau said she felt fortunate compared with a lot of people on the island and that the worst part was the lack of sleep and delay in getting home.
Road closures have made it difficult for people to find shelter. More than 1,800 people stayed overnight at Maui’s Kahului Airport, the Hawaii Department of Transportation said.
The Weather Service said that a red flag warning — indicating that critical fire conditions were occurring or would be shortly — was in effect for some areas of the Hawaiian islands.
Winds in Hawaii are expected to diminish on Wednesday as a high-pressure system to the north weakens and Dora moves west away from the islands, the Weather Service said.
Mike Ives, Claire Moses, Amanda Holpuch and Judson Jones contributed reporting.