KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) — The wildfire that has brought sheer devastation to Maui is especially heartbreaking for Hawaii because it struck one of its most historic towns and the onetime capital of the former kingdom.
Lahaina holds deep cultural significance for Hawaiians. The town was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs. His successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845, according to the National Park Service.
Kings and queens are buried in the graveyard of the 200-year-old stone Wainee Church. Later named Waiola, the church that once sat up to 200 people was photographed apparently engulfed in flames this week.
“It was really the political center for Hawaii,” said Davianna McGregor, a retired professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of structures were damaged or destroyed in the blaze that ignited Tuesday and quickly spread throughout the western Maui community of less than 13,000 residents.
It’s feared that the fire also consumed much of Lahaina’s historic Front Street, home to restaurants, bars, stores and what is believed to be the United States’ largest banyan, a fig tree with aerial roots that grow out of branches and eventually reach the soil and become new trunks.
Richard Olsten, a helicopter pilot with tour operator Air Maui, said he and other pilots and mechanics flew over the scene Wednesday before work to take stock.
“All the places that are tourist areas, that are Hawaiian history, are gone, and that can’t be replaced,” he said. “You can’t refurbish a building that’s just ashes now. It can’t be rebuilt — it’s gone forever.”
Francine Hollinger, a 66-year-old Native Hawaiian, said witnessing the destruction of Front Street was “like losing a family member … because they’ll never be able to rebuild it, like we wouldn’t be able to bring back our mother or father.”
The full extent of loss won’t be known until officials can assess the damage done by the flames, fanned by winds caused in part by Hurricane Dora moving westward hundreds of miles to the south of the island state.
The Lahaina Historic District is home to more than 60 historic sites, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. A National Historic Landmark since 1962, it encompasses more than 16,000 acres (6,500 hectares) and covers ocean waters stretching a mile (1.6 kilometers) offshore from the storied buildings.
For Native Hawaiians, the town is a connection to their ancestors. Lahainaluna High School was where royalty and chiefs were educated, and also where Kamehameha and his Council of Chiefs drafted the first Declaration of Rights of the People and the Constitution for the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“From going from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the ruling chiefs in and around Lahaina and those educated at Lahainaluna played very prominent roles in our governance at that time,” McGregor said.
The capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845, but Lahaina’s palace remained a place where royalty would visit.
Lahaina also has a rich history of whaling, with more than 400 ships a year visiting for weeks at a time in the 1850s. Crew members sometimes clashed with missionaries on the island.
Sugar plantations and fishing boosted the economy over the decades, but tourism is the main driver now. Nearly 3 million visitors came to Maui last year, and many of them come to the historic town.
The fire is “just going to change everything,” said Lee Imada, who worked at the Maui News for 39 years, including the last eight as managing editor until his retirement in 2020. “It’s just hard to register, even right now, what the full impact of this is going to be.”
Imada lives in Waikapu, on Maui, but has ancestral ties to Lahaina going back generations. His mother’s family owned a chain of popular general stores, and his granduncles ran the location on Front Street until it closed around 60 years ago.
He recalled walking down Front Street among the tourists as they shopped or ate, looking at the banyan tree, and enjoying the beautiful ocean views from the harbor.
“It’s just sort of hard to believe that it’s not there,” Imada said. “Everything that I remember the place to be is not there anymore.”
Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska. Associated Press video journalist Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed.
A previous version of this story misstated who united the Hawaiian islands and established Lahaina as the kingdom’s first capital. It was the first King Kamehameha, not Kamehameha III.