Updated Aug 11, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Hawai'i wildfire death toll increases to at least 67

A fire burning near Launiupoko on Hawaii's Maui island on Aug. 9.

A fire burning near Launiupoko on Hawai'i's Maui island on Aug. 9. Photo: County of Maui

Editor's note: Follow the latest updates on Hawai'i's wildfires.

Wildfires in Hawai'i have killed at least 67 people, wounded dozens of others displaced hundreds of families and destroyed an estimated 1,700 buildings.

The big picture: The death toll exceeded the 61 confirmed deaths from a tsunami in 1960 — considered to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in state history.

  • The fires are "likely the largest natural disaster in Hawai'i's state history," Hawai'i Gov. Josh Green said.

Between the lines: The blaze is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since California's Camp Fire in 2018.

  • About 80% of the historic town of Lahaina on Maui was "gone," Green said.
  • The fire that caused widespread damage to the town was roughly 80% contained on Thursday morning, while another fire near the town of Kihei was 70% contained, Maui County officials said.

Of note: President Biden approved Hawai'i's disaster declaration on Thursday, allowing people affected by the fires in Maui to access federal funding in part for temporary housing, home repairs or to cover uninsured property losses.

  • Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening that he had ordered all available federal assets to help with the response.
  • The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were assisting in search and rescue efforts and the Marines had provided Black Hawk helicopters, Biden said.

Driving the news: The National Weather Service (NWS) said winds from Hurricane Dora, which was passing hundreds of miles southwest of Hawai'i on Wednesday morning, were driving the extreme fires.

  • The Category 4 storm was not expected to make landfall in Hawai'i, but move west across the Pacific Ocean throughout the week.
  • Green noted that winds from the hurricane meant the fires "spread widely" as much of the Hawaiian islands were experiencing drought conditions.

Zoom out: Satellites detected fires exploding across the Hawaiian islands on Tuesday night, including on the Big Island, Maui and Oahu.

  • Hawai'i health officials on Wednesday night issued a mandatory "no burn" period for Maui until further notice and urged residents and visitors "to take precautionary measures or leave the area until the fire is contained and the smoke subsides."
A screenshot showing an aerial view of the devastation from a wildfire in the historic Lahaina town, Hawaii.
A screenshot showing an aerial view of the devastation from a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawai'i. Photo: County of Maui/Facebook

Zoom in: Hawai'i Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said the wildfires had burned hundreds of acres and forced evacuations and road and school closures in the Kohala Ranch community on the Big Island and in the Lahaina and Kula areas on Maui.

By the numbers: An estimated 11,000-plus customers in Hawai'i were without power on Friday afternoon after strong winds downed power lines and trees.

Satellite imagery  from Wednesday of the wildfires which have engulfed large areas of the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Satellite imagery of the wildfire-hit historic Lahaina area Wednesday on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies

Context: Human-caused climate change has led to rising temperatures in and around Hawai'i, and studies have shown that severe heat can exacerbate drought conditions and make environments more susceptible to wildfires.

  • Wildfires are not part of the natural life cycle for most Hawaiian ecosystems, but they have become more common on the islands because of the spread of nonnative invasive grasses, shrubs and trees that are adapted to wildfires, according to the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional developments.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo talks about the lives and history lost in the Hawai'i wildfires.

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