▶ Watch Video: Airports, shelters swamped as tourists and residents flee amid Maui wildfires

Wildfires ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui this week, killing at least 55 people and forcing thousands to evacuate. Little is left in the historic town of Lahaina, which was once Hawaii’s capital.

The exact cause of the blaze is still unknown, but a mix of land and atmospheric conditions created “fire weather.” “Fire weather” is characterized as strong winds, low relative humidity and thunderstorms, which create an environment where a fire can ignite and spread rapidly, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Officials warned that the death toll is expected to rise. Multiple fires are still burning, and teams have spread out to search charred areas, officials said. The number of people still missing is unknown, said Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier.

Buildings and homes burned to the ground in Lahaina, in western Maui.

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“What we saw is likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in a news conference Thursday afternoon. Some Maui residents say they received no official warnings about the fires that have killed at least 55 people.

A person was seen walking down Front Street in Lahaina, past destroyed buildings that were burned to the ground.

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Police have advised that people stay away from Lahaina “due to biohazard and safety concerns.” 

“Things are falling every minute around us,” said Maui County Fire Chief Bradford Ventura. “There have been people hurt by falling telephone poles and such.”

The fast-moving wildfire destroyed almost everything in its path, making it all the way to Lahaina’s harbor area.

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“Until you see the devastation, it’s difficult to describe,” said Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen. “But there’s lots of people that will need a lot of help.”

An aerial photo shows charred homes along Lahaina’s waterfront.

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The fires began burning early on Tuesday, Aug. 8, putting 35,000 lives at risk, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said in a statement. Four wildfires began spreading rapidly after winds from Hurricane Dora made landfall.

The harbor area burned to the ground in Lahaina, leaving almost nothing behind.

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The fire caught many residents of Maui off guard, making it difficult to plan for an organized evacuation. Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News they had to flee with only the clothes they were wearing.

“The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbor’s yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out,” Kaleiopu said.

Dozens of cars were destroyed when the wildfire struck western Maui.

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As evacuees wait to return to their homes, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters it could be weeks before neighborhoods are reopened.

Jesus Vasquez sits in his van waiting to return to his home near Lahaina. 

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The Lopes and Vasquez family camped in a parking lot waiting to return home.

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