At least 53 people have been killed and 1,000 remain missing after wildfires tore through the Hawaiian island of Maui.
A desperate search for survivors continued on Friday, in the historic town of Lahaina, where photos showed neighbourhoods reduced to grey ash, with block after block of nothing but rubble and blackened foundations.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Hawaii Governor Josh Green told The Associated Press.
Police chief John Pelletier reportedly said around 1,000 people remained missing following the fire.
It emerged on Friday that many residents did not receive warnings as the fires raced toward their homes.
Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with around 400 sirens positioned across the island chain. But many of Lahaina’s survivors said they didn’t hear any sirens and only realised they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.
Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that the warning sirens were triggered.
Electricity and mobile phone service had both been wiped out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.
In an interview at an evacuation centre Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired mailman, said he didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke.
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 sea wall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him, before firefighters arrived and led him and other survivors through the flames to safety.
More than 1,000 structures were destroyed by fires that were still burning, officials said on Friday.
The blaze – which began late on Tuesday local time, and was fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane – is the deadliest to hit the US in five years.
The death toll had hit 53 by Friday morning and was expected to rise as rescuers battled to reach parts of the island that had been unaccessible due to ongoing fires or obstructions.
US president Joe Biden declared the wildfires on Hawaii a disaster on Thursday, paving the way for government aid to rebuild the shattered island, amid a desperate search for survivors.
Adam Weintraub, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said: “These were large and fast-moving fires, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to get our arms around them and contain them. So, we’re hoping for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst.”