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'It looked apocalyptic' – British family watched Hawaii wildfires in horror

News'It looked apocalyptic' - British family watched Hawaii wildfires in horror

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A British family has told how they felt like passengers on the Titanic as they watched in horror wildfires incinerate swathes of Hawaii that have left at least 55 people dead.

Sarah and Andy Whitehouse and their two teenage daughters were holidaying on the island of Maui, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, when devastation struck.

Together they huddled in their hotel room as they watched the flames – fanned by winds of Hurricane Dora – that had left more than 1,000 people missing sweep ever closer.

As they prepared to jump into the Pacific Ocean, like many others had, mercilessly, the blazes took a different course.
“The only reason we’re still here is because the wind direction stayed away,” Sarah Whitehouse said.

British family confronted by Hawaii fires

British family confronted by Hawaii fires (Image: AP)

“I can’t describe it. We’ll never forget it,” she added, saying that the unfolding catastrophe felt like they were on the sinking Titanic.

Husband Andy described how the family were first greeted with what they thought was a huge dark rain cloud, only to realise it was thick, black smoke.

“I’ll never forget; it was just solid; everything vanished,” he said. “It looked apocalyptic. It came within a mile,” adding that the family could hear explosions in the near distance. The Whitehouse, from Derbyshire, praised their hotel staff, many of whom have lost their homes in the wildfires.

“It’s amazing,” Andy added. “I mean, we’ve had people in the hotel that have lost everything, and they were just grateful to be allowed to swim in the pool.”

The family are now waiting on a flight back to the UK.

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Locals forced to escape

Locals forced to escape (Image: Shutterstock)

Yesterday (FRI), locals who made desperate escapes from oncoming flames, some on foot, asked why Hawaii’s famous emergency warning system didn’t alert them as wildfires raced toward them.

The state’s records show no indication that sirens were triggered before devastating fires killed dozens and wiped out a historic town.

Hawaii boasts it has the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain to alert people to various natural disasters and other threats. But many of the survivors in Lahaina said they didn’t hear any warnings and only realised they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired postman from the town, said he didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke.
Power and cell mobile service had gone out, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.

He tried to leave in his Jeep but had to abandon the vehicle and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a seawall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.

Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub said the department’s records don’t show that Maui’s warning sirens were triggered.

Instead, he said the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations.
The wildfire is already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami, which killed 61 people on the Big Island.

Governor Josh Green said the death toll will likely rise as search and rescue operations continue.

“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Green said after walking the town’s ruins with Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen.

“Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina,” he said.

Maui County has a small fire force

Maui County has a small fire force (Image: Shutterstock)

The blaze is also the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in Maui County, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands – Maui, Molokai and Lanai – he said.

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they are all designed for on-road use. The department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said.

That means fire crews can’t thoroughly attack brush fires before reaching roads or populated areas, Lee said. He said the high winds caused by Hurricane Dora made that extremely difficult.

“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said.

“You’ve got to be careful – you don’t want to get caught downwind from that because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”

Search and rescue teams with cadaver dogs from California and Washington were yesterday in Maui to assist in recovery efforts in the aftermath of wildfires.“The devastation I saw is significant,” FEMA Region 9 director Robert Fenton said.

Much of Hawaii had been under a red flag warning for fire risk when the wildfires broke out on Tuesday, but the exact cause of the blaze is still unknown.

“We don’t know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation – so that’s dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry,” Major General Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

That, along with low humidity and high winds, “set the conditions for the wildfires,” he said.

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