Maui fires: Survivors describe harrowing escapes from the flameson August 11, 2023 at 2:39 am

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Survivors describe narrow escapes from fast-moving flames – and what they had to leave behind.

Photo of Tee Dang and her family at the airport in Maui

Tee Dang was in a rental car with her three children and husband on Lahaina’s Front Street when she saw the flames inching closer and closer towards them.

But when the vehicles around them began catching fire they decided to grab their food, water and phones and run for the waves.

They had already watched others trying to flee the rapidly moving flames do the same, including an elderly woman who was helped into the ocean.

“We have to get to the ocean,” the Kansas mother told BBC News on Thursday. “There was nothing else because we were cornered in.”

With their children – ages five, 13 and 20 – they at first stayed close to shore. But as evening approached, and the tide rose, the water started smashing her into the rock wall of the harbour, severely cutting her leg.

When the line of cars on Front Street – “at least 50” of them – started exploding, they were forced to move into deeper water to seek shelter from the “shooting debris”.

They were in the water for nearly four hours, she said.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, but the sky behind them was pitch black from the wildfire smoke.

It was a harrowing ordeal for the family, who wondered if they were going to make it out alive. At one point, one of Mrs Dang’s children fainted in the water.

They were eventually rescued by a firefighter who directed them through the burning streets.

Leading a group of about 15 survivors, she recalls the firefighter telling them: “I don’t even know if we’re gonna make it at this point. Just do everything I say. If I say jump, jump. If I tell you to run, run.”

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The entire family suffered burns.

After reaching shelter at the Maui Prep School, the family was forced to move twice more, including once because one shelter came under threat from flames.

Seventeen more people were confirmed to be dead on Thursday afternoon, bringing the death toll to at least 53, after a series of fires broke out across the Hawaiian island of Maui earlier this week. Thousands others have been displaced.

The hardest hit is the historic town of Lahaina, home to 12,000 residents and a popular destination for tourists.

At a news conference on Thursday, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said this is “the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history”.

“We will continue to see loss of life,” Gov Green said. Officials said they do not know how people are missing at this point as they continue to survey the damage.

None of the fires are 100% contained.

Gov Green added the state is struggling to house thousands of displaced people. He has called on Hawaiians elsewhere in the state to offer rooms and shelter for those in need.

Many have lost their homes, including Bryce Baraoidan, who was forced to flee with his family.

Mr Baraoidan said they left nearly all of their possessions behind, thinking their house would be still standing when they returned, but it did not survive.

“When we found out… my mother burst into tears,” he told the BBC. “Not just the whole street, but the whole neighbourhood is gone.”

Bryce Baraoidan

Image source, Bryce Baraoidan

“The thing I am saddest about leaving behind was my five pet chameleons,” the 26-year-old said. “I was very attached to them and I regret not taking them with us when we left.”

Steve Kemper, a photographer, lost a gallery that he managed on Front Street in Lahaina, his sister, Susanne Kemper, told the BBC.

Because only one road leads in and out of the town, it took him three hours to escape and drive east to the Maui town of Haiku, where his son is living.

“It was a close call,” she said. “He was absolutely exhausted when he got to my nephew’s. He was shattered.”

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Ms Kemper, who has spent time in Maui and other Hawaiian islands, explained that many of the buildings in the old town of Lahaina are made of wood, a legacy from when the town served as a major whaling port. This likely facilitated the spread of the fire in the town, she said.

“It just went up like a torch,” she said. “They were like matchsticks on the ground.”

She and others have struggled to get in touch with friends and family living in the area, as the blaze has cut power to thousands on the island.

One woman who spoke to the BBC said she could not get in contact with her parents who were staying at a hotel in Lahaina for their honeymoon. She registered their names with the Red Cross, but hadn’t heard from them in 24 hours.

After escaping and moving from shelter to shelter, Mrs Dang and her family managed to get to the airport in Maui, where they planned to board a flight back to Kansas.

Some 14,000 tourists were moved off Maui on Wednesday, officials say, with a further 14,500 set to be moved on Thursday.

As for the 26-year-old Mr Baraoidan, he and his parents have been staying with family on the other side of Maui since they evacuated their home. All they managed to take were some important documents, a bag of clothes and their two dogs.

“We are all in shock,” he said. But, he added: “My dad told me that everything in the house is replaceable and we are lucky to have each other.”

With additional reporting from Nadine Yousif.

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