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Canadian evacuees tell of chaotic scenes in Maui wildfire ‘war zone’

Canadians returning from Maui have told of harrowing scenes during their escape from the fire-devastated Hawaiian island.
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Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Canadians returning from Maui have told of harrowing scenes during their escape from the fire-devastated Hawaiian island.

Among the evacuees was British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Matthew Taylor who drove through the ruined town of Lahaina on Thursday and said it resembled a “war zone.”

Taylor, who arrived in Vancouver Friday morning on an Air Canada ferry flight, said buildings on both sides of the highway out of Lahaina had been “razed to the ground.”

“Driving through Lahaina was absolutely shocking. It was really, really sad,” said Taylor.

Officials in Hawaii say at least 55 people died this week after wildfires erupted on Maui in the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people.

Governor Josh Green has warned that the death toll will likely rise as search and rescue operations continue.

Taylor had travelled to Maui with his family for a vacation on Monday night, staying north of Lahaina. They arrived to perilous scenes even before the fire, with high winds bringing down power lines and falling branches striking their car on a drive to pick up groceries.

“There were shingles coming off the roofs. It was scary. There were branches hitting our car and a long line of cars not barely moving,” said Taylor.

It was the high winds that whipped up the wildfire and drove it over Lahaina, Hawaii officials say.

Taylor said that power and cellular communication went down where they were staying on Wednesday. It was then that a property manager told the family that Lahaina had been destroyed.

The family decided to leave but was hampered by the lack of cellphone service.

“People were finding little areas out on the peninsula where they were waving their phones, just trying to get one or two bars (of reception),” said Taylor.

Taylor said he eventually managed to get one bar on his phone, allowing him to book seats on Air Canada’s second ferry flight out of the stricken island.

Other evacuees described chaotic scenes after the fire.

Ontario resident Jessie Watkins said they were given little warning before fire engulfed the town.

“It just happened so fast … the problem was the wind was so strong that all the power lines were gone down, and all the roads were closed. So you couldn’t escape,” said Watkins, who was on the same flight as Taylor. “You could see the fire coming at you.”

Alberta resident Annette Burton said it was “a very surreal” experience in once-bustling Maui after the fire.

“Everything was shut down. Lahaina was like a ghost town. There were no businesses open. There was nowhere to eat,” said Burton, who arrived in Vancouver Friday morning on a WestJet ferry flight.

Air Canada said it was planning to send a third empty ferry flight to Maui on Friday night to bring back passengers to Vancouver Saturday morning.

WestJet said it had cancelled three flights from Vancouver to Maui’s Kahului airport due to the fires and safety considerations.

“We are working to notify all impacted guests and encourage them to check the status of their flights before heading to the airport,” WestJet said in a statement.

WestJet said it had returned Maui evacuees to Vancouver on flights that arrived Thursday and Friday morning, with an additional recovery flight scheduled to arrive late Friday.

Global Affairs Canada has issued an advisory telling Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to Maui.

The advisory also warned that Canadians already on the island should consider if they really need to be there, and if not to “think about leaving.”

Taylor, now home in Vancouver, said his heart goes out to residents of Maui.

“I don’t know what the residents are going to do. There are no groceries there, people were running out of food,” he said.