Hawaii wildfires burn homes and force evacuations, while strong winds complicate the fight

HONOLULU (AP) — Wildfires in Hawaii fanned by strong winds burned multiple structures, forced evacuations and caused power outages in several communities late Tuesday as firefighters struggled to reach some areas that were cut off by downed trees and power lines.

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power as night fell, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters.

Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard.

Fire crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the popular tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region. It wasn't immediately known how many buildings had burned, County of Maui spokesperson Mahina Martin said in a phone interview late Tuesday.

Because of the wind gusts, helicopters weren't able to dump water on the fires from the sky — or gauge more precise fire sizes — and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin said.

About 13,000 customers in Maui were without power, Hawaiian Electric reported Tuesday night.

“It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas,” Martin said.

Winds were recorded at 80 mph (129 kph) in inland Maui and one fire that was believed to be contained earlier Tuesday flared up hours later with the big winds, she added.

“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said.

Hurricane Dora was complicating matters for firefighters in an already dry season.

Hawaii is sandwiched between high pressure to the north and a low pressure system associated with Dora, said Jeff Powell, a meteorologist in Honolulu. The dryness and the gusts “make a dangerous fire situation so that fires that do exist can spread out of control very rapidly,” he said.

“It’s kind of because of Hurricane Dora, but it’s not a direct result,” he said, calling the fires a “peripheral result” of the hurricane's winds.

In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1,100 acres (1.7 square miles, or 4.5 square kilometers), Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.

“We're trying to protect homes in the community,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of evacuating about 400 homes in four communities in the northern part of the island. As of Tuesday, the roof of one house caught on fire, he said.

Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.

Fires were rare in Hawaii and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.

A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also was dealing with power outages, downed power lines and traffic problems, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

The weather service had in effect a high wind warning and red flag warnings for dangerous fire weather, Powell said.

These conditions were expected through Tuesday, decreasing throughout the day Wednesday and into Thursday.

___ Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.