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Ring by ring, majestic banyan tree in heart of fire-scorched Lahaina chronicles 150 years of history

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For generations, the banyan tree along Lahaina town's historic Front Street served as a gathering place, its leafy branches unfurling majestically to give shade from the Hawaiian sun. By most accounts, the sprawling tree was the heart of the oceanside community -- towering more than 60 feet (18 metres) and anchored by multiple trunks that span nearly an acre.

Like the town itself, its very survival is now in question, its limbs scorched by a devastating fire that has wiped away generations of history.

For 150 years, the colossal tree shaded community events, including art fairs. It shaded townsfolk and tourists alike from the Hawaiian sun, befitting for a place once called "Lele," the Hawaiian word for "relentless sun."

Ring by ring, the tree has captured history.

The tree was just an 8-foot (2-metre) sapling when it was planted in 1873, a gift shipped from India to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. It was planted a quarter century before the Hawaiian Islands became a U.S. territory and seven decades after King Kamehameha declared Lahaina the capital of his kingdom.

"There is nothing that has made me cry more today than the thought of the Banyan Tree in my hometown of Lahaina," wrote a poster identifying herself as HawaiiDelilah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"We will rebuild," her post said. "And the natural beauty of Maui will be forever."

It is said that the Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a banyan tree, which is a kind of fig.

The enormous tree has many trunks. Aerial roots dangle from its boughs and eventually latch onto the soil to become new trunks. Branches splay out widely and become roosting places for choirs of myna birds.

It's unclear what sparked the fire, which quickly raced toward town Tuesday evening. The flames were fanned by brisk winds and fueled by dry vegetation in nearby hills. When the ferocious blaze swept into the historic town, many of the wooden buildings didn't stand a chance and were quickly turned into heaps of ashes.

"There's just so much meaning attached to it and there's so many experiences that everyone has. It's in the heart of a historic town," said John Sandbach, who has lived on Maui for nearly two decades.

Sandbach watched from afar as the fire ravaged Lahaina, unable to return home to Maui from Colorado because of flight cancelations. His three children were safe from harm, he said.

There was an outpouring of grief over the loss of at least 36 lives, and while the community will also mourn the loss of the historic tree, Sandbach is more concerned what will become of the town.

"The town could have survived the banyan tree burning down," he said, "but nothing can survive with the whole town burning down."

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