OPN wildfire Hawaii
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 Image Credit: AP

The death toll in the fast-moving fire that leveled historic Lahaina on West Maui's coast rose to 53 Thursday even as firefighters said the blaze was 80 per cent contained, while a mass exodus of stunned residents and travellers streamed from the popular tourist destination.

Aerial surveys found more than 270 buildings burned in the small seaside town, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, now largely reduced to ash and rubble. It is likely the deadliest known fire in the state's history, a local fire researcher said.

"We really haven't experienced anything on this scale," said Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire management specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "This is beyond our worst imagination."

The fire was one of three that erupted this week on Maui, second-largest of the Hawaiian islands. Accuweather Inc. put the preliminary estimate of damage from the fires at $8 billion to $10 billion.

While it is unknown what sparked the flames, they drew their destructive power from some of the same conditions that have fueled devastating blazes this year from Canada to Greece: vegetation sucked dry by drought and strong winds. Some 36 per cent of Maui County is in moderate to severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

"This is not too surprising "- it's just surprising that it happened on Maui," said Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University in California. The speed of the Lahaina fire, which appears to have started on the eastern edge of town and was rapidly blown westward to the sea, likely led to the high death toll, he said.

Buses scooped up tourists Thursday from the resorts that line the shore north of Lahaina and ferried them directly to the island's Kahului Airport, where more than 1,400 people spent the night awaiting morning flights. Another 1,300 people slept in shelters, according to the county.

President Biden on Thursday declared a major emergency in Hawaii, freeing up federal funds to aid recovery. "Anyone who has lost a loved one or whose home has been damaged or destroyed is going to get help immediately," he said at an event in Salt Lake City.

Lahaina remains without power. The county said crews are working to clear roads and other areas of trees and debris.

Wildfires used to be rare in Hawaii but they started becoming more frequent in the 1990s as many of the old agricultural plantations and ranches closed, Trauernicht said. Invasive, non-native grasses took over fallow land and have provided new fuel for blazes.

Some communities are trying to reforest these grass lands, using tree shade to control the grasses, or return them to agriculture, but not at the scale needed, he said.

"We've just primed ourselves for a disaster like this," he said.