At least 93 people have died in wildfires on the island of Maui in Hawaii, officials said, a number expected to rise as the governor urged residents to shelter those who lost their homes.
The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people.
The updated death toll issued by Maui County on Saturday makes this the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed 85 people.
Governor Josh Green said the catastrophic flames have levelled the historic town of Lahaina, the worst natural disaster in Hawaii's history. More than 2,000 buildings have been destroyed, leaving thousands homeless.
Bill Wyland, who owns an art gallery on Lahaina's Front Street, fled on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. “It was devastating to see all the burned-out cars. There was nothing that was standing,” he said.
Resident Anthony Garcia said the fire had gutted the apartment he was renting and destroyed all his belongings and memories.
"It took everything, everything! It's heartbreaking," the 80-year-old California native said. "It's a lot to take in."
Officials were trying to find temporary housing for more than 4,000 people as the scale of the devastation became clear.
Flyovers by the Civil Air Patrol found 1,692 structures destroyed — almost all of them residential.
Officials have said 2,719 structures were exposed to the fire — with more than 80 per cent damaged or destroyed. Nine boats sank in Lahaina Harbour, officials determined using sonar.
Gov Green said it would take "many years" to rebuild the town that was once the capital of the former kingdom of Hawaii.
"What we saw was the utter devastation of Lahaina," he said. “Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burnt down.”
The Lahaina fire is not yet contained, AP reported.
President Joe Biden on Thursday approved a federal disaster declaration, freeing up resources to assist in recovery efforts.
Mr Biden spoke with the governor in a phone call, to “let him know we're going to make sure the state has everything it needs in the federal government to recover”. He also sent “his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property”.
Firefighters from Honolulu have been requested to assist, while 30 US Army personnel arrived to begin search and recovery efforts.
“Our prayers with the people of Hawaii but not just our prayers, every asset we have will be available to them,” Mr Biden said while travelling to Utah.
“And we've seen their homes, their businesses destroyed, and some have lost loved ones.”
The flames and smoke had forced people to flee into the sea off Lahaina. The US Coast Guard said 14 people were rescued from the ocean.
Lahaina resident Emerson Timmins told AP: “There were those cars abandoned on the road. I don’t think those people could get out in time.
“They probably headed to the ocean, the ones that could make it.
“And the people leaving their homes, if a young person could barely get out of there with their family, then the elderly are trapped.”
Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire, Reuters reported.
Officials have not offered a detailed picture of what notifications were sent, and whether they went by text message, email or phone calls.
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso also told AP they had been lucky to escape with their six-year-old child.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Mr Kawaakoa said. “I was helpless.”
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said the fires have tested the community's resolve.
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement on the county's Facebook page.
“Even though we are hurting, we are still able to move forward – especially when we do it together. And the days ahead, we will be stronger as a 'kaiaulu', or community, as we rebuild with resilience.”
About 11,000 people were flown out of Maui on Wednesday with another 1,500 scheduled on Thursday, state transport director Ed Sniffen said.
About 2,100 people were crammed into shelters in Maui on Tuesday night, county officials said.
Strong winds produced by Hurricane Dora were contributing factors to the fires and blowing power lines down.