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Hawaii wildfires: Joe Biden declares ‘major disaster’ – as mass evacuations under way

US President Joe Biden has declared Hawaii a disaster area after a massive wildfire killed at least 36 people.

The wildfires, driven by a dry summer and strong winds, also forced thousands to flee and destroyed parts of in the historic town of Lahaina – one of the main attractions on the island of Maui.

The disaster designation announced by Mr Biden clears the way for federal aid to help affected communities.

A mass evacuation effort for stranded visitors and residents is under way, with buses set to pick up people in Kaanapali, north of the town of Lahaina.

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Burned out cars sit after a wildfire raged through Lahaina. Pic: AP

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Visitors will be taken directly to the Kahului Airport and residents to a shelter in central Maui.

There are six active fires on Maui and Hawaii’s Big Island, with roughly 2,000 acres already burned, according to Hawaii Emergency Management on Thursday morning.

Burned out cars sit after a wildfire raged through Lahaina. Pic: AP
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Wreckage of fires. Pic:AP
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The fire in Lahaina town is reported to be 80% contained after the fire department reported making progress. In the area of Pulehu, the fire is 70% contained.

Firefighters are continuing efforts to protect structures and put out smouldering hot spots in Upcountry Maui.

People affected will be able to apply for grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and business owners will be allowed to apply for programs to recover from the disaster, the White House said in a statement.

An aerial view shows the community of Lahaina after wildfires
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An aerial view shows damage to the community

An aerial view shows the community of Lahaina after wildfires
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Mr Biden expressed his condolences during a phone call to Hawaii Governor Josh Green.

Speaking in Utah, he said: “Anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.

“Every asset we have will be available to them. And we’ve seen we’ve seen their homes destroyed and some have lost loved ones. And it’s not over yet.

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Biden declares major disaster in Hawaii

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“We’re working as quickly as possible to fight these fires and evacuate residents and tourists.”

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Inside Maui airport as wildfires spread

People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights Wednesday. Pic: AP
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People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights. Pic: AP

On a visit to Maui, US senator Brian Schatz said the “winds are finally backing off,” but the “number of dead continues to rise”.

He did not give any further details on the number of casualties.

People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights Wednesday. Pic: AP
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Thousands of residents have already fled their homes, while more than 11,400 tourists have been evacuated to nearby islands.

A further 1,500 visitors are expected to leave on Thursday as United Airlines and American Airlines have sent empty planes to evacuate passengers.

Entry into Hawaii’s former capital remains restricted, and the area is without electricity.

Fires in Lahaina. Pic:AP
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The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP)
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Lahiana is a popular tourist destination that dates back to the 1700s and is the biggest community on Maui’s west side.

Mr Green said the “entirety” of the town will need to be rebuilt after 271 structures had been damaged or destroyed.

The disaster is the worst Hawaii has seen since 1960, when a tsunami killed 61 people.

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