At least 36 people have died in wildfires that have ravaged the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii, local authorities have said, adding that the fires remained active.

Wildfires, fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, have destroyed homes and businesses in Lahaina, a beachfront town on the island of Maui that was once the capital of the kingdom of Hawaii. Dozens more people have been injured, and there have been 13 evacuations for three fires in the area.

Flames roared throughout the night and day, forcing adults and children to dive into the ocean for safety.

"As the firefighting efforts continue, 36 total fatalities have been discovered today amid the active Lahaina fire," a Maui county statement said. "No other details are available at this time."

Officials said earlier that 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people also injured.

The 2018 Camp fire in California killed at least 85 people, destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings, and virtually razed the town of Paradise.

Rescuers with the US Coast Guard pulled a dozen people from the ocean. Burn patients have been flown to the island of Oahu, officials said.

"It was like a war zone," Alan Barrios, a local person, told Hawaii Civil Beat. "There was explosions left and right."

The US president, Joe Biden, said he had "ordered all available federal assets on the islands to help with response". He expressed his condolences and said that he and his wife Jill's "prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses, and communities destroyed".

Acting Hawaii governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of governor Josh Green, who was traveling, and urged tourists to stay away. "This is not a safe place to be," she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the US Civil Air Patrol and the Maui fire department conducted flyovers and determined at least 271 structures had been damaged or destroyed. Assessing the full extent of the damage could take weeks or months, said Mahina Martin, a spokesperson for Maui county.

People reported widespread destruction in the town, which contains several historical landmarks and was a source of pride for local people, while also popular with tourists.

Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso told the Associated Press about a harrowing escape under smoke-filled skies. The couple and their six-year-old son got back to their apartment after a quick dash to the supermarket for water, and only had time to grab a change of clothes and run as the bushes around them caught fire.

"We barely made it out," Kawaakoa said.

As the family fled, a senior center across the road erupted in flames. They called 911, but didn't know if the people got out. As they drove away, downed utility poles and others fleeing in cars slowed their progress.

Kawaakoa, 34, grew up in the apartment building, called Lahaina Surf, where his dad and grandmother also lived.

"It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything," Kawaakoa said. "I was helpless."

Baldwin Home, built in 1834-35 and the oldest house on Maui, was among the structures that burned down, a museum official said.

James Tokioka, the director of the department of business, economic development and tourism, said: "Local people have lost everything ... They've lost their house, they've lost their animals."

Hurricane Dora complicated matters for firefighters in an already dry season. Hawaii is sandwiched between high pressure to the north and a low pressure system associated with Dora, said Jeff Powell, a meteorologist in Honolulu, adding that dryness and gusts "make a dangerous fire situation so that fires that do exist can spread out of control very rapidly".

The US National Weather Service (NWS) said Dora was partly to blame for wind gusts above 60mph (96km/h) on Tuesday night, when the fire spread. The winds knocked out power and forced firefighting helicopters to stay grounded.