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Marla Strobel stands with her daughter at the Vancouver International Airport on Aug. 11 after fleeing from a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

For the first time in hours, Chris Watkins, an officer with the Ontario Provincial Police, had a single bar of cell service. With shaking fingers, his wife, Dr. Jessie Watkins, dialled their 20-year-old son, Carter, who was home in Kingston while the pair vacationed in Maui. They wanted to say goodbye.

They were proud of him, they said. They loved him so much. Then the line dropped.

It was 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon, and the Watkinses were trapped on a sunbaked road outside the historic oceanside town of Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island’s west coast. Dozens of cars were lined up in front of them, none moving. Directly behind them, a wildfire mowing though Lahaina was rapidly approaching, turning the sky orange, then ochre, then a velvet black.

That fire was in the process of obliterating the town, sending ash and burning particles into the air with such force that even boats anchored offshore were incinerated. More than 1,000 structures were burned in the fast-moving flames.

By Friday evening, authorities had revised the death toll from the fire to 67. But Maui County’s mayor, Richard Bissen Jr., cautioned in an interview with NBC News that the count only included people whose bodies had been found out in the open, because rescuers had yet to move inside buildings in their search for the dead.

The number of deaths has surpassed the 61 fatalities from Hawaii’s 1960 tsunami, considered one of the state’s deadliest natural disasters. The toll is nearing the 85 people killed in the 2018 Camp Fire, one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, which razed the California town of Paradise.

The Watkinses were among several hundred Canadians who landed in Vancouver on Friday morning after boarding an overnight Air Canada relief flight. Many were emotional as they described scenes of horror and days of turmoil. Some were overcome and unable to speak at all. Others questioned the police response, wondering if different choices could have saved lives.

Screaming winds driven by Hurricane Dora, which was passing hundreds of kilometres south of Hawaii, had billowed up and down the coast, taking down utility poles. Power lines lay in piles like blackened spaghetti, forcing road closings all over town, Dr. Watkins said. “Everywhere you turned, you hit a barricade.”

“We were getting blasted by the heat of the fire,” Mr. Watkins recalled. “The wind was blowing 110, 120 kilometres per hour.” Red embers were falling like hail on their car, pinging against the roof. The acrid smoke was so thick they could barely see.

“We couldn’t go anywhere,” Mr. Watkins said. “We weren’t moving. The fire just kept getting closer and closer.”

Dr. Watkins, who had been wearing sandals, laced up her white Lululemon runners as she made ready to dash. But the fire, she realized, was moving a lot faster than they could run. There was no way out.

After several terrifying minutes, traffic finally began to crawl forward. Dr. Watkins, an anesthesiologist, saw a group of firefighters performing CPR on one of their colleagues. Beside them, a single officer was trying to direct traffic through an intersection.

Dr. Watkins jumped out to help. The firefighter was in cardiac arrest. At least one other had severe burns, she said. When the fallen responder was loaded into the back of an SUV, Ms. Watkins hopped back in with her husband, who followed a line of cars slowly snaking along the Honoapiilani Highway to Kihei. The drive, which should have taken 20 minutes, lasted more than five hours.

Hawaiian officials are now facing tough questions over whether they acted with enough urgency to evacuate Lahaina and warn residents of the danger they were in.

Video shot by Canadian tourists Chris and Jessie Watkins shows them driving through dense smoke with almost zero visibility as they escape the wildfire in Maui.

The Globe and Mail

On Friday afternoon, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency admitted that Maui’s emergency sirens were not activated. The agency said mobile phone alerts and messages on televisions and radio stations were triggered. But the power was out and cell service was down.

“It’s difficult, especially as a policeman, to criticize the response,” Mr. Watkins said. “But there was very little direction from any authorities. There was no traffic control, so there was a lot of gridlock.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that police were dealing with one emergency – the power outages and hurricane winds – when a second one emerged: the wildfire. “And the steps taken to deal with the first emergency were hampering people from escaping the second one,” he said.

Also on the island during the disaster was British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Matthew Taylor. He said road closings left him nowhere to go but Lahaina’s Front Street, where he found himself shortly before the wind-whipped flames rolled in.

“There were shingles coming off the roofs, branches hitting our car. My daughter was terrified. It was like driving through a warzone. On both sides of the highway, buildings were razed to the ground.”

Later, he said, there was looting, as desperate people searched for food and water. His friends lined up outside a grocery store for six hours. “They came back with a bag of rice, a can of pineapple and some quinoa.”

“There was no food, no water, no power, no cell service. People were finding little areas out on the peninsula, where they were waving their phones. We found a spot where we could get one bar.”

Justice Taylor managed to reach his wife, Justice Amy Francis, also of the B.C. Supreme Court, who was home in Vancouver. She was able to book tickets for her husband and their two teenaged daughters on Friday morning’s Air Canada flight.

Another passenger on Friday’s flight was Marla Strobel, who said she had arrived in Lahaina with her partner and daughter two days before the fire. “I felt quite helpless,” she said. “You get to know the people who work at the hotel, you talk to them, and they’re destroyed. People lost family. People got hurt. Stuff can be replaced, but people can’t. That’s devastating.”

Air Canada said in a statement that it was sending a plane without passengers to Maui on Friday night to bring people to Vancouver on Saturday. Passengers travelling to, from, or through Maui can extend their travel dates, rebook in or out of Honolulu without additional fees, or request refunds without penalty, the airline added.

WestJet had two recovery flights scheduled for Friday. The airline said in a statement that flexible change-or-cancel guidelines have been announced for all passengers travelling to Maui’s Kahului Airport between Aug. 9 and 31.

The destruction of large parts of Maui has been devastating for many who live or spend a great deal of time there. Among them is Canadian music producer Bob Rock, a 25-year Maui resident who has a ranch property in Kula, near the centre of the island.

Tuesday night was terrifying, he said. A wildfire started across the street from him. “It was like a wall of fire.”

The winds were in Kula’s favour, though. They blew the fire southwest, toward Kihei.

At first he was relieved. Then he heard about Lahaina.

“Maui is really hurting and has been beat up,” he said. “I know the Hawaiian culture and people here and they’re resilient and they’re strong.”

Maui, he said, will be back.

With reports from Marsha Lederman and Xiao Xu

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