A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii late Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. Thousands of residents raced to escape homes on Maui as blazes swept across the island, destroying parts of a centuries-old town in one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in recent years.

Ty O’Neil | AP

At least 55 people are dead after devastating wildfires ripped through Hawaii’s second-largest island of Maui, county officials confirmed late Thursday local time. 

The blaze has reduced the historic city of Lahaina to ashes, said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who surveyed the damage. The fire in Lahaina has been 80% contained but remains active, according to a Thursday update from Maui County officials. The city remains without power.

Lahaina was the capital of Hawaii from when the islands were an independent kingdom. The city carries deep cultural significance to Hawaiians. King Kamehameha I established Lahaina as his royal residence in the early 19th century after unifying the islands into a single state.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. The recovery process will be long, but we’re committed to these families and communities,” Schatz said on social media.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green on Thursday issued a fourth emergency proclamation since the fires began on Tuesday. The declaration will help with the recovery and rebuilding of West Maui and allow for doctors and nurses from out of state to practice in Hawaii.

Puong Sui, center, talks to her daughter at War Memorial Stadium in Kahului, Hawaii on August 10, 2023. 

Mengshin Lin | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Thousands of people have been left homeless with hundreds of homes destroyed, Green said in a press conference Thursday. The fires were caused by very strong winds and underlying drought conditions.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii on Thursday and vowed to provide immediate federal assistance to the victims. Biden directed Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell to streamline requests to get federal aid to survivors without delay.

Criswell will travel to Maui on Friday. The administrator told NPR in an interview that the disaster response will face challenges because the island of Maui is remote and isolated.

“We’ll have to really work closely with the governor and his team and be creative in how we’re going to be able to provide the immediate sheltering, which we’re supporting right now, but then the long-term temporary housing that’s going to be needed while they rebuild,” Criswell told NPR.

Dozens of traveller wait in line to past security at Kahului Airport in Kahului, Hawaii on August 10, 2023. 

Mengshin Lin | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Criswell said the disaster declaration allows the federal government to provide reimbursement and cash assistance for people to make home repairs. She said the first step is for people to talk to their insurance company. Criswell said the government will also provide assistance to people who are underinsured or do not have insurance.

“We also understand that people have lost everything,” Criswell told NPR. “So this is designed to jump-start their recovery. But it also brings crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance.”

Criswell said the focus right now is on saving lives. FEMA has deployed search and rescue teams to find missing people, the administrator said. The agency is also providing communications equipment because there have been communications outages.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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