Anthony C. Garcia stands among the historic Banyan tree in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, on August 12, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Lahaina: The lush town of Lahaina was once the royal capital of Hawaii, and it is steeped in Hawaiian history dating as far back as 300 years. But officials say the deadly and unexpected wildfires that have ravaged the island of Maui in the past day have devastated Lahaina - raising fears about the fate of cultural landmarks beloved by the people of Hawaii.

A one-of-a-kind, 150-year-old tree. A missionary home thought to be the oldest standing house on Maui. A Buddhist temple. All are among the sites feared lost or damaged in the fires, which have killed more than 50 people.

Undoing the devastation will “take years,” Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke has said.

Banyan tree

Lahaina, a town of about 12,000 people on Maui’s western coast, attracts tens of thousands of tourists per year - and visitors and locals alike have been mesmerized by the giant banyan tree off Lahaina Harbour that rises 60 feet, sheltering those who sit on benches under its winding branches.

The Banyan tree stretches nearly a quarter-mile in circumference and stands on the grounds of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, home to the town’s heritage museum. Satellite images have shown significant damage to the courthouse, including a missing roof. The tree and the museum are preserved by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

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Image Credit: AFP

According to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the tree was planted in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. Over the years, residents have helped the tree to grow symmetrically by hanging water-filled jars on specific aerial roots.

Kaniela Ing, a former member of Hawaii’s House of Representatives, tweeted an image of the damaged banyan tree and called it “a tragic symbol of the climate emergency.” (The image could not be independently verified by The Washington Post.)

Image Credit: AFP

Ing told NBC News that, before the devastating fire, Lahaina provided a window into the history of Hawaii and its people.

“If you start from one end of Front Street and walk to the other end, it’s like a physical timeline of the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” Ing told the outlet. “You can actually see the flow in the buildings stemming back 150 or more years. It’s remarkable, and just the thought that that history may have been lost in this fire or any bit of that history is heartbreaking.”

Baldwin Home

The Lahaina Conservation Foundation told The Post on Friday that the Baldwin Home Museum, the oldest house on Maui and a historic treasure to the town of Lahaina, was destroyed in the wildfires.

“All that is left of the two-story Baldwin Home and its neighbour, the Master Reading Room, are the coral block and stone walls. No windows, stairs, decks, or roof,” said Theo Morrison, the organization’s executive director.

The cedar shingle roof of the Baldwin Home caught fire and collapsed onto the second floor, which contained the offices of Lahaina Restoration Foundation, Morrison told The Post. The organization recently spent $20,000 repainting all the exterior woodwork as a part of a full-scale building rehabilitation project.

The museum contained one-of-a-kind artifacts used by Christian missionary and doctor Dwight Baldwin, the home’s namesake.

The destroyed Waiola Church. Image Credit: AP

More historic landmarks

Meanwhile, the Maui News reported that flames had engulfed the hall at Waiola Church - a mission that is considered the first Christian church on Maui and that celebrated its 200th anniversary in May - as well as a 90-year-old temple belonging to the Hongwanji Shin Buddhist community on Maui.

The Pioneer Inn, a Best Western property that was built in 1901, was also consumed in the blaze, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Other historic landmarks and sites around Lahaina include the Olowalu petroglyphs - images carved into the basalt cliffs of the Olowalu Valley by early Hawaiians as long as 300 years ago, according to the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“It’s a real loss. Hawaii and Maui have tried really hard to preserve and protect those places for many, many years . . . not for the sake of tourism but because it’s part of our cultural heritage,” state Sen. Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran (D) told USA Today, citing unconfirmed reports that several of Maui’s best-known landmarks were destroyed.

“We just lost a large part of our heritage,” he added.