Maui News

Walking along Front Street provides vivid picture of panic to escape fast-moving Lahaina fire

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Governor Josh Green is back on Maui today for damage assessment. He will hold a press conference at 4:30 p.m. The conference will be streamed live on our Maui Now Facebook page. (8.12.23) PC: Tiffany DeMasters

Photographs show the massive devastation of the Lahaina wildfire that burned buildings, boats, homes, vehicles — an entire once vibrant iconic town — beyond recognition.

It’s hard to see.

It’s even more difficult to be in the midst of the destruction, which can be anywhere within a five-mile-square area. There really is no ground zero. Home-after-home, business-after-business, are nothing but ashes and melted metal.

Along the once tourist drag of Front Street were fire-gutted cars in a traffic jam. The cars once were filled with people trying to outrun the fast-moving flames in winds of up to 80 mph.

During a media viewing of the area on Saturday, with Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green and other officials, the sheer panic that West Maui residents and visitors experienced Tuesday trying to escape the blaze is evident.


Only vehicles within the immediate area of the destruction were checked once for remains, as indicated with a spray-painted X on the hood or car door.

Approximately 90 Federal Emergency Management Administration responders also have begun to search the homes within the most impacted area for more victims.

  • Destruction of Lahaina and Front Street following a wildfire on Aug. 8, 2023. (PC: Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)
  • Destruction of Lahaina and Front Street following a wildfire on Aug. 8, 2023. (PC: Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)
  • Damaged boats seen floating offshore of Front Street following a wildfire in Lahaina Aug. 8, 2023. (PC: Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

Two additional bodies were found Saturday during the day, bringing the death toll up to 89 — making the Lahaina fire the most deadly in the U.S. since the 1918 Croquet fire in Minnesota killed 453. But by Saturday night, the number rose to 93.

Saturday was Green’s second trip to Front Street, this time with FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, to get an update on the recovery efforts.

FEMA officials hope to do a full check of the homes over the next three to four days.


The closer Green got to the pileup of “X” cars, extending from at least Papalaua Street to Baker Street, a faint rancid smell joined the mix of a soggy fire stench that filled the air. Lying dead in the middle of the street among the vehicles was a black dog.

“That tragic smell is from people who lost their lives,” Green said as he walked the Lahaina oceanfront, glass and debris cracking beneath his feet with every step.

While other West Maui communities are open to residents, Maui officials want people to stay away from Lahaina and Front Street because it is dangerous.

Toxins fill the air. Structures are unsafe and could crumble. There are downed power poles, trees and large debris left behind.

With the danger of the still-standing buildings collapsing, Green said it is important that they all be assessed.


But the biggest reason to stay out of Front Street and the Lahaina area, officials say, is to give them time to recover victims of the fire.

“We’re trying to be careful how quickly we allow people to come in is because a lot families haven’t even been able to verify that they lost their loved one, and that’s only happening now,” Green said.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said the county wants to show respect and dignity to the folks still here: “You may not see them, but they’re here.”

To aid in the search, five search and rescue dogs from Washington State sniffing for bodies. Between searches on Saturday, the dog handlers from the National Resource System brought their animals into the back of a box truck, where kiddie pools were set up for the dogs to wade in to cool off.

When they’re refreshed, the handlers take them back out.

Twelve more cadaver-sniffing dogs are on the way to aid in the search.

“Walking through it’s heart breaking,” Criswell said. “But we also see the true resilience of a community that comes together; how that bond will help them rise up from this horrible tragedy.”

Criswell said she will stay in Maui for as long as needed: “We’re going to be with you every step of the way throughout this response and recovery.”

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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