An Aussie mum living on the fire-struck island of Maui has told of her terror as she fled her blazing home with her two sons in her arms.
At least 53 people have died after wildfires ripped through Hawaii’s second-largest island, and another 1000 people are missing. Hawaii’s governor, Josh Green, warned the death toll is likely to rise.
Cadaver dogs have been flown in to search for bodies, particularly in the devastated town of Lahaina on the island’s west coast.
One Australian family — Nathalie Wilson Smith, her husband Matt and their two young sons, who have lived on Maui for six years — escaped their home in Lahaina, with little more than their lives.
Nathalie, who is originally from Sydney, noticed the wind was picking up around their home earlier this week. Some powerlines had fallen and several spot fires were burning, but when she saw a large fire blazing some 200 metres away, a “gut instinct” urged her to act.
She grabbed her two boys — Jacksen, 11, and Kai, 6 — and piled them into the car. The petrol tank was near-empty and fire was burning on both sides of the road, but the trio coasted out of Lahaina on fumes. They made it out with nothing more than their passports and the clothes on their backs.
“She had to have thought that was going to be it for her,” Nathalie’s younger sister, Cassie, told news.com.au.
“We’re just very humbled, very grateful at this moment that they made it out safely.”
Nathalie’s husband, Matt, was on another part of the island, anxiously waiting to be reunited with his wife and boys.
Photos and videos taken after they were able to return home showed the family’s apartment, which they had moved into just last week, razed to the ground.
The pile of rubble was almost unrecognisable. The skeleton of a charred hedge bordered what was once their home.
Cassie, who lives in Melbourne, has set up a GoFundMe for her sister, aiming to raise $5000 to help the family rebuild.
She described Nathalie as “heart on legs”.
“She’s just all heart. She’s very humble and very brave,” Cassie said.
“She wasn’t dealt the best cards in life and no matter what, she’s just kept going. No doubt, with this devastation, it will be exactly the same.”
The Smiths have no plans to leave Maui despite losing “everything”, Cassie added.
“The Hawaiian spirit is strong and in a time like this. Everyone needs each other,” she said.
“There is only one place for them to be … They’ll want to roll up their sleeves and do everything they can to help.
“She’s completely shaken, the boys are shaken, but they’re safe. They have their lives and they have each other. That’s it right now”
Nathalie and her family weren’t the only Aussies who were caught up in the blaze.
Another Australian tourist, Neil Ewing, who was visiting his daughter and American son-in-law, said witnessing the fires was “like being in a horror movie”.
“It was like it wasn’t real. I couldn’t believe it was really happening,” he told Channel 7.
“You could see bodies in the water. They died in the water trying to get away from it.”
Fellow Aussie tourist Rachel Ressler had her own survival story.
“Do we listen to the authorities on our phone or do we just go with our gut and get away from the smoke?” she recounted.
“Luckily we (got out), because the civic centre ended up being evacuated and burning down as well.”
Aerial photographs of Lahaina, which served as the Hawaiian kingdom’s capital in the early 19th century, showed entire blocks reduced to cinders.
Wildfires on Maui’s west coast, fuelled by high winds from a hurricane passing to the south, broke out on Tuesday and rapidly engulfed several towns. It is now one of the deadliest disasters in Hawaii’s history and the deadliest US wildfire in five years.
Cassie told news.com.au the lack of service on Maui made the devastation difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
“There’s still no service and no electricity on the west side of Maui,” she said.
“People need help. They are suffering. It’s our job to do what we can to help them.”