Devastating wildfires have engulfed Maui, an island that is part of the Hawaiian archipelago, razing buildings and forcing many of the population to flee their homes. At the time of publication, 36 fatalities had been reported by Maui County.
The most severe fires are located in the west, particularly the historic town of Lahaina. More than 271 structures have been impacted in the area, according to flyovers by the US civil air patrol and the Maui fire department. These include museums and heritage sites.
“The wildfires on Maui have ripped through the town of Lahaina with devastating consequences and we are immensely saddened by the loss of life, homes, and historical and cultural sites,” Jonathan Yukio Clark, the director of the Schaefer International Gallery at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, tells The Art Newspaper. “A number of cultural sites located in the town of Lahaina were destroyed in the fire, but it will take time to know the full impact and specifics,” he says, adding that the ongoing fires and limited phone connectivity are hampering efforts to assess the damage and share information.
The Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which is responsible for 14 major historic structures in Lahaina, has lost several of its sites in the fires. “Many homes, businesses and historic places have been damaged and destroyed,” says Theo Morrison, the foundation’s executive director, in a statement. “We need to come together now to make sure our town recovers from this.” The foundation has launched a campaign to raise funds for Lahaina’s recovery effort.
One of the sites run by the foundation to have suffered in the wildfires is the Baldwin Home Museum—a building dating back to 1834 and widely believed to be the oldest house on the island. Originally a missionary compound, the house was gifted to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation in 1967 and run as a museum to document 19th-century life on the island. The building has burned down entirely, according to CNN.
The foundation’s 20th-century Wo Hing Museum—once a religious and social meeting place for Chinese immigrants—has also been destroyed, according to reports. And the Lahaina Heritage Museum—which once offered visitors “a comprehensive, interactive look at the rich and varied history of Lahaina from pre-contact Hawaii to the monarchy era”, according to the foundation’s website—has lost its roof, satellite images show.
The Wo Hing Museum is located on Lahaina’s Front Street, a popular part of the old town that was home to many heritage buildings. The whole street, which was a major tourist attraction, has been destroyed. The street was also home to the Na ‘Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, a 10,500 sq. ft space owned by the state. It regularly hosted events for artists and invited audiences to explore Polynesian artefacts and local historical documents.
“This has been a terrible event for Maui and we are all grieving the loss of life and the destruction of the beautiful historic town of Lahaina,” Maika Pollack, the director and chief curator at University of Hawaii’s John Young Museum of Art, tells The Art Newspaper. “Tadashi Sato [a Maui-born artist associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement] painted in Lahaina and I was just there last summer researching some of his public art for an exhibition. It’s a town of great importance to the cultural history of Hawaii.”
The governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, said in a statement that the fires “spread widely across Maui and Hawaii counties as a result of very strong winds in the region and underlying drought conditions”. Emergency services continue to fight fires and a state of emergency has been put into effect on the island until 31 August.