Honolulu — A dramatic scene was playing out Tuesday night in the Hawaiian town of Lahaina on the island of Maui where, authorities said, people were jumping into the water to escape flames and smoke from a wind-fueled wildfire.
CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV reported that eyewitnesses were describing "an apocalyptic scene" with residents forced to jump into the harbor waters.
Coast Guard Lt. Elaine Simon told CBS News people in Lahaina turned to the water as refuge. But she said the wind was blowing thick black smoke toward the water.
Later, the Coast Guard confirmed that it had rescued a dozen people and rescue efforts were ongoing. It was unclear how many people were still in the water.
KGMB said the extent of damage in Lahaina wasn't known but "videos on social media showed a wall of flames descending on Front Street in Lahaina and destroying a number of businesses."
Front Street business owner Alan Dickar told the station, "Buildings on both sides were engulfed. There were no fire trucks at that point; I think the fire department was overwhelmed."
He told CBS News, "Maui can't handle this. .. A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes. ... This is going to be devastating for Maui."
The wildfire in Lahaina was one of many in Hawaii fanned by strong winds that burned multiple structures, forced evacuations and caused power outages in several communities as firefighters struggled to reach some areas that were cut off by downed trees and power lines. Some people reported having trouble evacuating due to gridlock, smoke and encroaching flames.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of hundreds of miles, was partly to blame for gusts up to 80 mph that knocked out power as night fell, rattled homes and grounded firefighting helicopters.
The Central Pacific Hurricane Center said Dora was a mighty Category 4 hurricane as of late Tuesday night Hawaii time.
Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard.
The weather service's Honolulu office said it extended a Red Flag Warning for all of Hawaii's islands through 6 p.m. local time Wednesday "with extreme wildfire risk continuing as a result of low humidity, high wind and dry fuels."
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.
Also in Lahaina, a honeymooner made an unlikely request on social media:
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.
Almost 15,000 customers in Hawaii were without power as of 10 p.m. local time (4 a.m. EDT), according to PowerOutage.us.
"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 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, explained 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, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
Upcountry Maui resident Caroline Lebrec was among those forced to evacuate and told CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV she could see flames advancing as she headed to an emergency shelter. "There were branches falling down on us, small ones but enough that I sped up," she said.
The wind forced five Maui public schools to close and officials said they'd stay shut Wednesday, the station reported.
The Red Cross was opening shelters on Maui and the Hawaii Island.
"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 fires in the U.S. mainland.
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 a high wind warning and red flag warnings in effect for dangerous fire weather, Powell said.
The conditions were expected to decrease throughout the day Wednesday and into Thursday.
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