(NEXSTAR) – A wildfire devastated Hawaii’s Lahaina Town, leaving the fate of what is believed to be the largest banyan tree in the U.S. uncertain. The wildfire, sparked Tuesday, quickly spread throughout the western Maui community of under 13,000 residents, causing at least 36 deaths and damaging or destroying hundreds of structures.
According to Nexstar’s KHON, Lahaina means “the cruel sun” in Olelo Hawaii, and residents have historically embraced its traditional sunny climate. But in recent days, heat from a different source has claimed lives and threatened to destroy major landmarks in one of the state’s most historic cities and the one-time capital of the former kingdom.
It’s feared that the fire consumed much of historic Front Street, home to restaurants, bars, and stores, as well as other parts of Lahaina. Maui officials said the banyan—a fig tree located in Banyan Court Park with roots that grow out of branches and eventually reach the soil, becoming more trunklike features that expand the size of the tree—was charred but may be salvageable, KHON reported.
The “enormous” banyan tree spans 1.94 acres and is over 60 feet tall, according to Lahainatown.com. Covering more than the length of a city block, the famed tree is a quarter of a mile in circumference and has 16 trunks. It is considered “one of the most massive in the world,” according to the site.
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. You can’t refurbish a building that’s just ashes now. It can’t be rebuilt. It’s gone forever,” he said. “It’s a huge impact and blow on the history of Hawaii and Maui and Lahaina.”
Maui was its own sovereignty for 20 generations, with Lahaina once named the capital city of the Kingdom of Hawaii, according to KHON. After Kamehameha the Great unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs, he made Lahaina his royal residence. His successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845, according to the National Park Service.
Lahainaluna High School was where royalty and chiefs were educated, and also where King Kamehameha III and his Council of Chiefs drafted the first Declaration of Rights of the People and the Constitution for the Hawaiian Kingdom. Front Street became a gathering place along the wharf, and in 1962, the area was named a National Historic Landmark.
The Lahaina Historic District includes the downtown, Front Street and neighboring areas, and is home to more than 60 historic sites, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. It encompasses more than 16,000 acres and covers ocean waters stretching a mile offshore from the storied buildings.
One of them is the 200-year-old, two-story stone Wainee Church, later renamed Waiola, which has kings and queens buried in its graveyard. Its hall, which can seat up to 200 people, was photographed apparently engulfed in flames this week.
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.
According to KHON, in 1823, missionaries protested the rowdy behavior of visiting sailors. To enforce curfew and liquor laws, the Royal Governor of Maui built Lahaina Fort near Banyan Court Park, where the banyan tree resides.
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 city.
Lee Imada, who worked at the Maui News for 39 years, including the last eight as managing editor until his retirement in 2020, said the fire is “just going to change everything.” Lee added, “It’s just hard to register, even right now, what the full impact of this is going to be.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.