Wildfires have left a path of destruction on the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least 36 people and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
The fires, which continued to burn Thursday, appear to have destroyed the historic center of Lahaina, the former capital of the former Kingdom of Hawaii.
While the damage was still being assessed, witnesses said that several important areas appeared to be engulfed in flames.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot with tour operator Air Maui, told The Associated Press news agency that he flew to the area to stock up.
“All the places that are tourist spots, that are the history of Hawaii, are gone, and that can’t be replaced,” he said. “You cannot refurbish a building that is now just ashes. It cannot be rebuilt — it is gone forever.”
What is broken?
Aerial footage of Lahaina shows the town nearly engulfed in flames. Videos on social media captured smoke lingering downtown, with cars and shops melting.
It’s not immediately clear how all of the 60 historic sites in the Lahaina Historic District are doing. The district covers over 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres).
Speaking to The New York Times, Theo Morrison, the executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which manages many historic sites, said that the speed of the fire made it almost impossible to take any protective action.
“We had no preparation, no warning, nothing,” Morrison said. He noted that the roof of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which houses a heritage museum with ancient Hawaiian artifacts, appears to have collapsed.
Local media also reported that the Baldwin Home, built in 1834 by Reverend Ephraim Spaulding, was destroyed. The house is the oldest still standing in Lahaina.
Photos on social media appear to show the famous Lahaina Banyan Tree, believed to be the largest in the United States, also singing wildly.
‘To change everything’
Longtime residents lamented the loss. The fire “will just change everything”, Lee Imada, who has worked for the Maui News for 39 years, told The Associated Press.
“It’s just hard to register, even now, what the full impact of this will be.”
Imada said his ancestral ties to Lahaina go back generations. His mother’s family owned a chain of popular stores, and his great-uncles managed a location on historic Front Street until it closed about 60 years ago.
He remembers walking down Front Street among the tourists while shopping or eating, looking at the banana tree and enjoying the beautiful ocean views from the pier.
“It’s hard to believe it’s not there,” Imada said. “Everything I remember about the place was gone.”
Lahaina and the Kingdom of Hawaii
Lahaina rose to prominence under King Kamehameha I, a transformational figure in Hawaiian history.
He united Hawaii under his rule, subjugating the small independent principalities of Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kauai and Niihau from 1795 to 1810.
In Lahaina, a coastal town framed by volcanic peaks, Kamehameha built a royal residence, known as the Brick Palace, which was one of the first Western-style buildings in the Hawaiian Islands, according to the US National Park Service. Lahainaluna High School became the main place of education for the leaders of the kingdom.
Kamehameha’s heirs Prince Liholiho and Prince Kauikeaouli — who ruled as Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, respectively — settled in Lahaina from 1820 to 1845, when the kingdom’s capital moved to Honululu on the island of Oahu.
Waine’e Church Cemetery, where several Hawaiian monarchs are buried, remains a sacred site for Native Hawaiians, also known as Kanaka Maoli.
Of the reporters covering the #MauiFire: Please stop identifying Front Street and Lahaina Town as a “tourist area”
It was the original Capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Here is the palace of King Kamehameha.
The Kanaka Maoli still live here, on their ancestral land from the 1800s.
— Kaniela Ing (@KanielaIng) August 9, 2023
Lahaina “is really the political center of Hawaii”, Davianna McGregor, a retired professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told The Associated Press.
He pointed out that Lahaina played a prominent role in the kingdom’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy under King Kamehameha III.
The town also became a key port where the first US whaling ships arrived in 1819. Those hunting expeditions, in addition to an influx of Christian missionaries, brought foreigners and commercialization to Lahaina. In the following decades, many Chinese citizens also moved to Lahaina to work on the sugar plantations.
After the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 and the subsequent annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the US five years later, Lahaina became one of the largest tourist destinations in Hawaii. The islands became a US state in 1959.