A Vancouver man who lives part time on the Hawaiian island of Maui has described how an enormous “firestorm” engulfed the town of Lahaina, where at least 53 people were killed by the devastating blaze.
Brad Desaulniers, 61, has owned a home in Kihei, about 30 kilometres from Lahaina, for 20 years.
He said he watched smoke rising over the water and hills that separate the two towns.
“It was a firestorm,” Desaulniers said in a phone interview from Kihei. “There was an entire firestorm that was two miles wide and two miles deep that just raced across and destroyed everything in its path.”
“There have been more and more wildfires in Maui for the last 10 years, but nothing like this. Some of the people who’ve been here through some of the volcano issues have said this dwarfs anything that’s ever come out of the volcano.”
The wildfire, fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, ignited Tuesday and quickly raced through a number of communities on Maui’s west coast.
Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green said Thursday that the death toll was 53 and likely to rise. Officials with Maui County said dozens more were injured and more than 270 structures were damaged or destroyed.
Global Affairs Canada has issued an advisory telling Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to Maui.
The advisory also warned that Canadians already on the island should consider if they really need to be there, and if not to “think about leaving.”
The death toll makes the wildfire the deadliest in the United States since 2018 when at least 85 people were killed in the 2018 Camp Fire in California.
Desaulniers said his home was far from the fires and not damaged, but the entire northwest of Maui has been “shut down” with no road access, no electricity and limited cellphone service.
“You can feel on the island right now, everywhere you go, a sense of shock and sadness,” he said. “The people who’ve died … the homes that were lost, the businesses that were lost … and the historical value of Lahaina is irreplaceable.”
In a written statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance should contact Global Affairs’ emergency response centre via phone, text or online platforms such as WhatsApp.
“Canadians are strongly advised to exercise caution, to monitor local news and weather reports and to follow the instructions of local authorities, including evacuation orders,” Joly said in the statement.
A flyover conducted over Lahaina Thursday showed the normally vibrant community reduced to grey and black, with rubble, building foundations and charred vehicles strewn about the town.
The wildfire has disrupted transport in and out of the Hawaiian island, with both Air Canada and WestJet saying they have implemented flexible rebooking or cancellation policies to help affected travellers.
WestJet said it had cancelled three direct flights from Vancouver to Maui, and a “recovery flight” meant to bring back stranded passengers was scheduled for Friday, in addition to two more flights routed through Honolulu this week to help travellers evacuate.
Air Canada said it was planning to send a second empty plane to the island Thursday evening after the first emergency ferry flight returned to Vancouver on Thursday morning.
A statement from the carrier said a scheduled flight from Maui to Vancouver — Air Canada’s only daily route from the island — was cancelled on Tuesday, necessitating the ferry flights.
The travel situation to Maui was “dynamic and evolving” the airline said.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority has asked visitors on non-essential travel to leave Maui, and incoming non-essential travel to the island is “strongly discouraged.”
Thomas Panos, owner of Vancouver-based Omega Travel, said Maui is a major destination for Canadian family travel during the fall, winter and spring seasons, and the potential loss of the island as a market for the foreseeable future could be a “huge hit” for the tourism industry serving that demographic.
Panos, who visited Maui in March, said it was difficult seeing the devastation in Lahaina, a historic town that was previously the capital of the kingdom of Hawaii for parts of the 1800s and a centre of activity for western portions of the island.
“I’m shell-shocked and heartbroken for Hawaiians,” he said. “We had dinner at one of the restaurants that was completely destroyed by the fires in Lahaina … the Safeway that we shopped in is gone. The main street is completely gone.
“I just don’t know how they’re going to pick up because that was the financial and spiritual heart of the western part of the island.”
Panos said he has few answers for clients who have booked travel to Maui in the fall and winter.
“It’s going to be just telling our clients, basically, to just wait,” he said. “Of course, cancel if you have any plans over the next couple of months. But just wait and see what happens.”
Desaulniers said he was confident the community would rebuild, but “the physical loss will be really hard to get over.”
“If people are listening, find a way to contribute if you can … because there’s going to be an awful lot of people hurting here for a while,” he said.