The western side of the island, including the tourist resort of Lahaina, was nearly cut off with only one highway still open as officials told of widespread devastation that was still too early to quantify.
West Maui was closed to everyone except emergency workers and those evacuating the area.
Panicked people fleeing the flames posted videos and photos on social media showing apocalyptic clouds of smoke billowing up over formerly once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.
“Our main focus now is to save lives,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen told a news briefing.
Bissen had few details about the deaths, saying he had just been informed of the number before the briefing started.
“The situation is really fluid. They are doing search and rescue as we speak,” said National Guard Major General Kenneth Hara.
Some people were forced to jump into the ocean to escape the smoke and fire conditions, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them, according to a Maui County press release.
The state opened at least five evacuation shelters, officials said.
The situation in Hawaii mirrored scenes of devastation elsewhere in the world this summer, as wildfires caused by record-setting heat forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe.
Human-caused climate change, driven by fossil fuel use, is increasing the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events, scientists say, having long warned that government officials must slash emissions to prevent climate catastrophe.
Dustin Johnson, a native of San Diego, was in West Maui’s Lahaina working for a charter boat company that takes tourists on two-hour tours from the harbour.
“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it,” he told Reuters in an interview at Kahului Airport, a 25-minute drive east of Lahaina. “And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way.”
Jolie Campbell and Conner Campbell, newlyweds from Cincinnati, were staying north of Lahaina on Tuesday when they lost power early in the day. Despite the high winds, they went on a tour to a different part of the island.
As they approached Lahaina in the afternoon, however, they saw a huge cloud of smoke and received phone alerts telling them to evacuate. Their tour guide dropped them off at the airport, unable to return them to the hotel, where all their belongings remained on Wednesday.
“We’re happy to be OK,” Conner Campbell said in an interview from the airport. “We were praying all night for people to be safe.”
‘THE HARBOUR IS GONE’
The National Weather Service said the current brush fires arise from a mix of conditions: dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity. According to the University of Hawaii, large fires are an almost annual occurrence in some parts of the Hawaiian archipelago, though the scope of these fires is unusual.
By Tuesday night, hundreds of acres had already burned and roads and schools had closed in parts of Hawaii and Maui Counties, according to an emergency proclamation issued by acting Hawaii Governor Sylvia Luke. Hawaii County encompasses the Big Island, which lies south of Maui.
In Maui, the fires also destroyed parts of Kula, a residential area in the inland, mountainous Upcountry region, the proclamation said.
Officials say the winds from Hurricane Dora have fanned the flames across the state. The storm was about 795 miles south-south west of Hawaii as of 5 a.m. local time, the National Hurricane Center said.
Gale warnings remained in effect for all of the Hawaiian islands, with high winds of 45 mph with gusts of 60 mph possible.
Ian Martin, an NWS forecaster in Honolulu, told Reuters that the worst of the high winds should end by late Wednesday or early Thursday.