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As hope fades for hundreds still missing in Hawaii wildfire, survivors recount their life-or-death choices

There were no sirens, no one with bullhorns, no one to tell anyone what to do: Maui residents were on their own, with their families and neighbours, to choose whether to stay or to run, and where to run to.

At least 99 people dead after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years

Wildfire wreckage is pictured, with burnt cars, homes and ruined infrastructure.

The smoke was starting to blot out the sun. Winds were howling, and heat bore down as flames licked the trees on the horizon. The power had been out all day, so Mike Cicchino thought he'd drive to the hardware store for a generator. He turned off his street, and in an instant, his Lahaina neighborhood seemed to spiral into a war zone.

"When I turned that corner, I see pandemonium," he said. "I see people running and grabbing their babies and screaming and jumping in their cars."

It was around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when Cicchino and his neighbours began a desperate fight for their lives. They had just moments to make decisions that would determine whether they lived or died in a race against the flames.

There were no sirens, no one with bullhorns, no one to tell anyone what to do: They were on their own, with their families and neighbours, to choose whether to stay or to run, and where to run to — through smoke so thick it blinded them, flames closing in from every direction, cars exploding, toppled power lines and uprooted trees, fire whipping through the wind and raining down.

At least 2,200 buildings were destroyed in the fire, 86 per cent of them residential, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in a video posted on social media on Monday. He later told a news conference the death toll had risen to 99, up from 96 earlier on Monday. It is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years — and they expect that number to rise.

'We need to go!'

Just 10 minutes before Cicchino made that turn away from his street, Maui fire officials had issued an ominous warning. The Lahaina brush fire had sparked that morning, but authorities reported it was contained. Now, officials said, erratic wind, challenging terrain and flying embers made it hard to predict the fire's path and speed. It could be a mile away, Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said, "but in a minute or two, it can be at your house."

Cicchino did a U-turn, ran into his house and told his wife they needed to leave: "We need to go! We need to get out of here now!"

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They ran to the car with five dogs and called police, and a dispatcher said to follow the traffic. Access to the main highway — the only road leading in and out of Lahaina — was cut off by barricades set up by authorities. The roadblocks forced Cicchino and the line of cars onto Front Street.

A first responder is pictured with a dog among wildfire ruins.

The street was gridlocked.

Bill Wyland grabbed his computer, passport and Social Security card and stuffed them into a backpack. He got on his Harley Davidson and drove on the sidewalk.

"I could feel the heat burning in my back. I could pretty much feel the hair is burning off the back of my neck," said Wyland, who owns an art gallery on the street.

The street was so jammed, he thinks if he'd taken his car instead, he would have died or been forced into the ocean. The people sitting in their cars saw black smoke ahead.

"We're all driving into a death trap," Cicchino thought. He told his wife: "We need to jump out of this car, abandon the car, and we need to run for our lives."

Hawaii's governor tours the town in Maui hit by a wildfire.

Stay on burning land or head to the sea

They got the dogs out. But it was impossible to know which way to run.

"Behind us, straight ahead, beside us, everywhere was on fire," Cicchino said. It had been less than 15 minutes since he left his house, and he thought it was the end. He called his mother, his brother, his daughter to tell them he loved them.

The black smoke was so thick they could see only the white dogs, not the three dark ones, and they lost them.

Propane tanks from a catering van exploded.

Volunteers carry and sort donated supplies in a parking lot.

"The cars sounded like bombs going off," Donnie Roxx said. "It was dark, it was four o'clock in the afternoon, and it looked like midnight."

A seawall separates the town from the ocean, and Roxx realized he and his neighbours were confronting a horrific decision: stay on burning land or go to the water. The sea was churning and treacherous even for strong swimmers, as the wind kicked up the waves.

"Do you want to get burned or take your chances and drown?" he asked himself. He jumped over the wall.

So did dozens of others, including Cicchino and his wife.

Others came to realize they needed to flee — but not because officials told them. Some heard from friends and neighbours; others just had a feeling.

"There was no warning. There was absolutely none," said Lynn Robinson. "Nobody came around. We didn't see a fire truck or anybody."

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Guiding first responders to rescue

But a path through the smoke cleared for just a moment, and police came shouting for them to go north. They ran.

Many others remained trapped on the beach.

Cicchino and his wife took off their shirts, dunked them in water and tried to cover their faces. Cicchino ran up and down the seawall, shouting his lost dogs' names. He saw dead bodies slumped next to the wall. "Help me," people screamed.

A man walks alone through the wreckage of a wildfire surrounded by burnt cars.

Elderly and disabled people couldn't make it over the wall on their own. Some were badly burned, and Cicchino lifted as many as he could. He ran until he vomited from the smoke, his eyes nearly swollen shut.

For the next five or six hours, they moved back and forth between sea and shore. They crouched behind the wall, trying to get as low as they could. When flames fell from the sky, they dunked themselves into the water.

Two burnt boats float on water.

It was so surreal, Cicchino thought he must be dreaming.

"My mind kept going back to: This has got to be just a nightmare. This cannot be real. This cannot actually be happening," he said. "But then you realize you're burning. I'm feeling pain, and I don't feel pain in nightmares."

The U.S. Coast Guard's first notification about the fires was when the search and rescue command centre in Honolulu received reports of people in the water near Lahaina at 5:45 p.m., said Capt. Aja Kirksy, commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu.

The boats were hard to see because of the smoke, but Cicchino and others used cellphones to flash lights at the vessels, guiding them in to rescue some, mostly children. Fire trucks eventually came and drove them out, through the flames.

Burned out vehicles with no tires sit in front of burned, twisted structure.

Those who survived are haunted by what they endured.

Cicchino jolts awake at night from dreams of dead people, dead dogs. Two of his dogs remain missing. He agonizes over the decisions he made: Could he have saved more people? Could he have saved the dogs?

Three people hug near some palm trees.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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