Authorities began allowing residents back into west Maui on Friday, although the fire zone in Lahaina remained barricaded. Officials warned there could be toxic fumes from smouldering areas and said search operations were continuing.
Hundreds of people were still missing, though a precise count was not clear.
At a family assistance centre in Kahului, June Lacuesta said he was trying to locate nine relatives who had not been heard from since Tuesday.
“When I see Lahaina town itself, I cannot describe the feelings I get,” said Lacuesta, who was headed to a church shelter next to continue his search.
The disaster began just after midnight on Tuesday when a brush fire was reported in the town of Kula, roughly 55 km from Lahaina.
About five hours later, power was knocked out in Lahaina. In updates posted on Facebook that morning, Maui County said a 1.2-hectare-brush fire cropped up in Lahaina around 6.30am but had been contained by 10am.
Subsequent updates were focused on the Kula fire, which had burned hundreds of acres and forced some local evacuations. But at around 3.30pm, according to the county’s updates, the Lahaina fire flared up.
Some residents began evacuating while people including hotel guests on the town’s west side were instructed to shelter in place. In the ensuing hours, the county posted a series of evacuation orders on Facebook, though it was not clear whether residents were receiving them as people frantically fled the fast-advancing flames.
Some witnesses said they had little warning, describing their terror as the blaze destroyed the town around them in what seemed to be a matter of minutes.