Maui residents who escaped a wildfire that killed at least 55 people have asked why Hawaii’s emergency sirens did not alert them as the flames raced toward their homes.

Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that the warning system was triggered before a devastating wildfire wiped out the historic town of Lahaina, officials confirmed.

Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest single outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain.

But many of Lahaina’s survivors said they did not hear any sirens and only realised they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami killed 61 people.

An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 people on the Big Island, prompted the development of the territory-wide emergency system that includes the sirens, which are sounded monthly to test their readiness.

Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired postal worker from Lahaina, did not know about the fire until he smelled smoke. Power and mobile phone service had both gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.

Hawaii Wildfires damage
The historic town of Lahaina was destroyed in the fire (AP)

Mr Leonard tried to leave in his Jeep, but had to abandon the vehicle and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a sea wall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.

Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Mr Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub said the department’s records do not show that Maui’s warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, Mr Weintraub said.

Wildfire damage
Experts say the fires are likely to transform the landscape in unwanted ways, hasten erosion, send sediment into waterways and degrade coral (Tiffany Kidder Winn via AP)

It is not clear if those alerts were sent before widespread power and phone coverage outages cut off most communication to Lahaina.

Fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started on Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched brush covering the island and then flattening homes and anything else that lay in its path.

The wildfire is already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami, which killed 61 people on the Big Island.

Wildfires burning
Thousands of residents raced to escape homes on Maui as blazes swept across the island (AP)

Governor Josh Green said the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue.

He also said Lahaina residents would be allowed to return throughout Friday to check on their property and that people will be able to get out, too, to get water and access other services.

“The recovery is going to be extraordinarily complicated, but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely because it’s pretty dangerous,” he told Hawaii News Now.

“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Mr Green said after walking the ruins of the town with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen.

“Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”

The fire is also the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.

Lahaina’s wildfire risk was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.

West Maui was also identified as having the island’s highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the second-highest rate of households without a vehicle, and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association.

There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in Maui County, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands – Maui, Molokai and Lanai – he said.

A woman cries
President Joe Biden has promised to help people who lost their homes (AP)

Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they are all designed for on-road use. The department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said.

That means fire crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Mr Lee said. The high winds caused by Hurricane Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.

“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Mr Lee added. “You’ve got to be careful — you don’t want to get caught downwind from that, because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”

A burned out street
Many people have lost their homes, and the death toll is expected to rise (Tiffany Kidder Winn via AP, File)

Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, Mr Bissen noted, while tourists in hotels were told to shelter in place so that emergency vehicles could get into the area.

The mayor said that downed power poles added to the chaos as people attempted to flee Lahaina by cutting off two important roads of town. Speaking at a Thursday afternoon press conference, he said that 29 poles fell with live wires still attached, cutting off the roads to Wailuku and the airport and leaving only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa.

Communications have been spotty on the island, with emergency, landline and mobile phone service failing at times. Power was also out in parts of Maui.

Tourists were advised to stay away, and about 11,000 flew out of Maui on Wednesday with at least 1,500 more were expected to leave on Thursday, according to Ed Sniffen, state transportation director.

Officials turned the Hawaii Convention Centre in Honolulu into an assistance centre for tourists and locals, stocking it with water, food, and volunteers who help visitors arrange travel home.

US President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui. On Thursday, he pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately”.

Mr Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on the island.

Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolences to the people of Hawaii, offering prayers for the victims, the injured and displaced from the wildfires.

The note said Francis was saddened to learn of the destruction and “expressed solidarity with all those suffering from this tragedy, especially those whose loved ones have died or are missing.”

He also offered prayers for emergency responders who are providing aid to the victims.