(KHON/NEXSTAR) – A series of wildfires raging across Maui have devastated the island and its communities, wiping out homes and businesses and destroying the historic town of Lahaina in just a few days.
The death toll, which had climbed to 55 as of Friday morning, is also expected to grow as rescue workers continue recovery efforts.
“The closest thing I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone or maybe a bomb went off,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said Friday during an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“It was cars in the street, doors open, you know, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist,” Bissen said.
The blazes first broke out Tuesday, though the exact causes are currently unknown. What officials do know, however, is that conditions in Maui were perfect for wildfires in the months leading up to this week’s events.
Maui has experienced an especially dry summer, both in terms of humidity and vegetation, experts told the Associated Press. They referred to these extreme instances of unusually hot, dry conditions as a “flash drought” — and in Maui’s case, the flash drought had experienced a “quick acceleration” in recent weeks.
“The most destructive fires usually occur during drought,” Jason Otkin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told the outlet. “If an area falls into drought quickly, that means there is a longer window of time for fires to occur.”
Invasive grasses in the area, which have replaced large sections of irrigated crops, only added fuel to the fires, said Elizabeth Pickett, of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.
When the blazes finally broke out, there was little Maui County’s fire officials could do to stop them, especially considering that winds whipping across the island from nearby Hurricane Dora were literally fanning the flames. Wind gusts across the island reached up to 67 mph this week, data from the National Weather Service shows.
“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association.
Additional fires had broken out on the islands of Hawai’i and O’ahu, though the most devastating and uncontrollable burned throughout Maui.
Maui’s fire risk wasn’t totally unexpected; wildfire risks were actually well-known in Lahaina. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and a large number of buildings at risk for wildfire damage.
On Friday, Gov. Josh Green shared a sliver of good news for residents of the town, confirming to Nexstar’s KHON that residents of Lahaina will be allowed to return to their homes starting Friday.
The area, he warned, will look nothing like they left it.
“Lahaina is a devastated zone. They will see destruction like they’ve not ever seen in their lives,” said the governor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.