Aftermath of Hawaii's deadly wildfire inferno revealed in gut-wrenching satellite images

Image of the Hawaiian town of Lahaina taken by Earth-observation satellites of U.S. company Maxar Technologies before and after the devastating wildfires of August 2023.
The once neat town of Lahaina on Hawaii's Maui island has turned into a scorched scene of destruction, as revealed by Earth observation satellites of U.S. company Maxar Technologies. (Image credit: Maxar Technologies)

An out-of-control wildfire erupted on the drought-stricken island of Maui earlier this week, wreaking havoc on the Hawaiian town of Lahaina. Satellites are providing a sobering view of the scope of destruction.

The blaze, which scorched the historic town on Hawaii's second largest island, erupted on Tuesday for reasons still unknown. The wildfire quickly grew into enormous proportions shortly thereafter, fanned by powerful winds spurred by the passing Hurricane Dora. At least 55 people have lost their lives and thousands have lost their homes, officials have said. 

Meteorologists explained that although Dora passed more than 700 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of the Pacific archipelago, its interaction with an area of high pressure in the northern Pacific Ocean produced powerful winds, which rapidly spread the fire across Maui's dry landscape.

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Images shared by U.S. Earth-observation companies, Maxar Technologies and Planet, provide side by side comparisons of Lahaina and its surroundings before and after the blaze. While images taken by Maxar in June show a neat neighborhood abundantly sprinkled with greenery, views from Wednesday (Aug. 9) reveal a bleak, ash-covered scene in grays and browns with thick plumes of dark smoke billowing above. 

Planet's images taken a day later provide similar views to those of Maxar after the smoke cleared.

NASA's Landsat 8 satellite also captured a gut-wrenching image of the town ablaze on Tuesday (Aug. 8), shortly after the fire was first reported. In that image, nearly all of the town, which prior to the disaster had a population of about 12,000, glows bright orange with flames. Europe's Sentinel-2 Earth-observing spacecraft spotted the region on fire as well, during its pass on Aug. 8. These Hawaiian fires were so intense that they could clearly be observed in images taken by weather satellites in the geostationary orbit, some 22,000 miles (36,000 km) above Earth. 

According to media reports, the fires have still been raging on the remote island as of the morning of Friday (Aug. 11). Hawaii's governor, Josh Green, called the fire the "largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history," adding that 80% of Lahaina was "gone," according to the BBC.

A massive wildfire on Hawaii's island of Maui seen by the weather satellite GOES West from the geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth. (Image credit: NOAA)

According to the U.S. National Weather Service, the winds that fanned the flames are now receding and will remain at moderate levels throughout the weekend and early next week. That should put an end to the lethal mix of conditions which, in addition to fueling the flames, also complicated fire-fighting and rescue efforts.

According to CBS News, National Guard helicopters called to help fight the fires had to be grounded as wind gusts reaching speeds over 60 mph (97 kph) lashed the island. In fact, the winds alone caused destruction in the region, knocking out power lines and damaging homes, CBS reported. 

Rescue operations and humanitarian aid efforts are further complicated by the remote nature of Maui and the limited resources the island has at its disposal to handle disasters of such a massive scale. 

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

  • iMaxPlanck
    This is absolutely heartbreaking. Many dead or displaced. Old Lahaina was such a place of Aloha with shops, bars, restaurants, and all the hippies hanging out under the great banyan tree. You could sit on the custom house steps and watch the surfers. Sounds of laughter and scents of weed from one end of town to the other haha. Fun Halloween street parties. Years of fond memories there with my wife and friends. One Sunday during lunch at Paia Fish Market my wife and i decided to extend our visit and call out sick. I hope this post serves as a little tribute to a wonderful place.