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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Maher

Our Experience During the Lahaina Wildfire August 2023

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Our Experience During the Lahaina Wildfire August 2023

(Our evacuation and the compassion at Red Cross in King’s Cathedral after the devastation within the heart of Lahaina)

Tuesday August 8th was the start of the devastating fire the consumed West Maui’s historic Lahaina town and residential area. The power went out at our place in Napili at around 6am that day. Napili, is part of Lahaina, located about 10 miles north of the main town that was consumed by the merciless flames. We felt unsafe; we had no idea when power or resources would become available to us, and frankly, we did not want to be around if things started to get ugly.

We only heard over the radio that buses were transporting people to Kahului airport from Ka’anapali (3 miles north from the devastation) but we were not sure what time or when.

We had the option of taking our car around the north side of the island, but it seemed risky since we had limited gas and the coastal highway is long and treacherous with many switchbacks and cliff sides. We did not want to get potentially getting stuck in traffic and run out of gas.

My husband and I took a chance and left our apartment Thursday afternoon, just two days after the wildfire with only the essentials, leaving our vehicles and everything behind, with only uncertainty ahead of us. We did not know who would drop us off in Ka’anapali to catch a bus, or if we would have to spend the night on the concrete waiting for a bus.

Thankfully, we had a friend take us to Ka'anapali and we were relieved to see a line of yellow school buses ready to take tourists and locals to Kahului. The buses began loading people when we arrived and in about ten minutes, we were shuttled through the incinerated Lahaina town.

The site of the damage was overwhelming. It was hard not to cry, because it was so emotional seeing your favorite places totally gone in a hellish kind of way. I had to wear a mask because the smell of the ash made me dizzy. All the buildings lay in heaps like blackened carcasses of melted metal and charred wood. Powerlines tipped over and trees ripped from their roots and thrown down; evidence of the violent winds that fueled the searing flames traveling at high speeds. The winds were caused by Hurricane Dora that was moving across the Pacific hundreds of miles south of Maui. On the radio, helicopter spectators had said it is nothing like they had ever seen. Trying to use words like apocalyptic and catastrophic does not even come close to describing the disturbing scene, because not only were lives and homes lost, the culture and history that was preserved within the heart of Lahaina will never be the same. It is indeed the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history.

It all felt so unreal, like we were living in a bad dream because it was all so unexpected. We would have never thought that Lahaina would have been destroyed by a fire like this. Maui’s west side is known for being dry and fires have appeared before, but never one as big and out of control as this.

When the power first went out in Napili the morning of the wildfire, my husband and I did not think too much about it. We were not concerned at all. We went to work that day because we had thought, “Oh the power is going to come back on in a few hours probably.”

10am rolled around and still no power. I was told to go home from work because there was nothing for me to do. I work in Ka’anapali, and I had heard from someone that there was a fire near Lahainaluna high school, and that was the only news that I got that day since I had no access to the internet and no power on my phone. Driving home was crazy because the traffic lights were out. Even though most people treated the intersection as a four way stop, some people forgot and just drove straight through without stopping.

My husband, Chad was working in Lahaina at the “Mill Yard” on some boats near Lahaina Square Shopping Center and was also sent home at about 1 pm. He did not know it but at that time, the fires had begun to develop significantly nearby. I cannot even let myself imagine what would happen if he stayed any longer and continued working.

Photo from Internet showing where Chad worked

Since we had no power in Napili, we had nothing to inform us of the fires and we did not think to turn on the radio in the car to listen to the news. We reassured ourselves that power had to come back on by tomorrow morning. That night, we ate under candlelight and fell asleep to the sounds of the howling wind, unaware that countless people were suffering and dying from the uncontrollable blaze that scorched Lahaina town just ten miles away.

Aug 9th Wednesday, we woke up the next morning and still no power. It was Chad’s birthday as well too. Chad and I knew something was wrong because it was the longest that we had gone without power while living in Napili. We wanted to find out what was going on and the only way to do that was to listen to the news in the car. Chad and I hopped in the car, and we tuned in to the news station while he drove me to work. I knew that I should not have been going to work, but I just wanted to check in because I had only started a week ago and I did not want to be a no call no show since I could not text my supervisor.

“All of front street gone! All the residential area devastated!” we heard the newscaster say. We looked at each other and our mouths dropped open. “How could this have happened?” “Is this real?” “What else was destroyed?” “How long are we going to be without power?” “What should we do?” So many questions and thoughts were running through our heads as we sat in traffic along Honoapi’ilani highway heading south to Ka’anapali.

“We should turn around,” said Chad. “It’s not safe.”

“I know, I just want to check in with my job,” I said, and Chad continued to drive me to the resort at Ka’anapali.

At the intersection where we made a right into Ka’anapali, police blocked any through traffic going south toward Lahaina town. “If police are stopping traffic from entering Lahaina, then the extent of the damage the fire caused must be huge!” said Chad. Driving through Ka’anapali we could see trees uprooted surrounded by military vehicles, police cars and other random abandoned cars just parked on the side of the road.

Fallen tree at Ka'anapali

As I entered the lobby of the resort where I work, I could see that it was crowded with people holding luggage bags lining up at the front desk or just sitting around waiting to leave Lahaina. There was a backup generator that powered the lobby, but the back offices were still dark with no power. The guests crowded around the hot coffee that was being provided because they could not get some anywhere else. (You do not realize how many people are addicted to coffee until the power is down).

My boss was frantically helping people and trying to answer unanswerable questions. He told me to just go home and come back when the power returns. The entire time that Chad and I were driving back home we could see police cars, ambulances, firetrucks, going in both directions along Honoapi’ilani highway. We had to pull over to the side of the road many times just to let them pass. We could also see many helicopters flying overhead. Listening to the relentless sirens we realized the seriousness of the situation that we were in. It felt like mayhem and all we wanted to do was make it home safe.

When we passed Napili market we could see that the parking lot was crowded with cars and tents set up. “These people must have lost their homes,” said Chad. I could not imagine how many hundreds of people lost their homes. All we could do that evening was eat our warm perishables in the fridge and listen to the news in the car. It was hard to sleep that night with all our questions and thoughts tormenting our brains because we knew the best thing for us was to leave and that is just what we did the next day.

In the bus ride through the blackened rubble of Lahaina I could not help but think about all the animals that were killed or left homeless and the lives that were changed forever and the trauma that people experienced trying to flee the flames. It is upsetting that the city alarm system had failed and that some fire hydrants lost water pressure. The death toll is up to 100 now and they are still finding more bodies. It is estimated that 2,200 buildings are destroyed and 80 % is residential. Chad and I have lived and worked in Lahaina for almost 2 years, and we fell in love with the culture and people and it broke are hearts to see everything in ruins. We are grateful we had a chance to enjoy the historic Front Street before it was destroyed. Lahaina had the most restaurants voted to be the best on Maui, such as Fleetwood’s, Cool Cat, and Mala Tavern, etc. It was also the most touristy area on the island because of its nostalgic atmosphere that encompassed both history and recreation.

Photo from internet showing the devastation

Chad did not even know if he still had a job because the people he was working for, their boats and vehicles destroyed and Lahaina Harbor is condemned, no one is allowed in that area for what will probably be months.

We made a good move to leave, and we were beyond lucky to catch a ride out of Lahaina. It was perfect timing. Many people, however, could not leave the island or evacuate to another part of Maui because of their pets and families.

The bus dropped us off at the airport and we managed to get a flight out on Saturday to Washington to stay with family. It was impossible trying to get a flight out sooner since all the tourists were trying to fly out at the same time to avoid the fires hitting Maui. Not only was there a fire in Lahaina, but also in Upcountry and Kihei.

Federal Fire Fighters arriving to help at the Kahului airport

We had to spend two nights somewhere before our flight. We figured that it would be hard trying to find a room at any hotels last minute as well, because of all the displaced evacuees and tourists. Thankfully, Red Cross shelters had been set up in various places nearby. One of them was at King’s Cathedral, an international Pentecostal multi-site megachurch based in Kahului. As if on cue, a shuttle from King’s Cathedral pulled up in front of us in the loading zone of the airport. What are the chances?

We were provided with food, blankets, and a place to sleep. It was amazing and inspiring to see so many donations being brought in and volunteers helping people affected by the wildfires. Volunteers even performed traditional Hawaiian song and dance and it was very heartwarming and uplifted our spirits. The Hawaiian culture is about compassion and a sense of community that inspires hope, and it was seen at King’s Cathedral. They gave us everything that we needed, and we felt safe.

Beautiful picture of the front of King's Cathedral at night

(Inside King's Cathedral Volunteers performing traditional Hawaiian song and dance)

The historic Lahaina town will never be the same. We were lucky to have escaped with our lives and still have each other. So many people lost so much more than us. I cannot imagine the heartbreak families must be feeling after losing homes and loved ones. Chad and I were struck by the remarkable and harrowing story that Christina Lovitt had told when she was interviewed by CNN. Chad recently worked with Christina and her business delivering supplies to Lanai. Her recollection of the night of the Lahaina wildfire is tragic although heroic. Her and her wife Emma Nelson, had spent the night out in the water on their skiff, watching the fire consume Lahaina. They had also watched their boat burn up that was anchored in the Lahaina harbor. They had worked on their boat for months and put every penny into it. Chad also had worked on their boat, and when he heard that it went up in flames, he was devastated as well. That night, Christina and Emma heroically saved two young children swimming in the ocean trying to escape the horrific flames and passed them over to the Coast Guard.

Near the Lahaina boat harbor was the famous Banyan Tree. It was about 150 years old. It was first planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lahaina’s first protestant mission. The heart of Lahaina lived within the magnificent tree because it provided shade, and a gathering place for both locals and tourists alike. It was a canopy of green, with innumerable aerial roots stretching to the ground creating a maze-like environment for the many birds that also gathered within its shade. It’s highest point reaching 60ft and spanning about an acre. Now it stands as an ashy corpse.

Surrounding the tree stood historical and old town buildings with attractions and highly rated restaurants such as the Old Lahaina Courthouse and the Baldwin Home Museum, Wharf Cinema Center, Pioneer Inn and Lahaina Public Library. Front Street will never be the same now that it has been destroyed. It is the fear of the locals that big name companies will just take advantage of the situation and buy up the burned land. But that will be prohibited because “Lahaina is not for sale” is what many locals are saying.

There was no warning, no alarms, and no cell phone service to alert the community of the growing fire that firefighters were struggling to contain. May this be a lesson to the future to better prepare for disasters like this because climate change is certainly one of the culprits of this devastating fire. Rising temperatures, drought and severe wind created this wildfire and a lack of warning cost lives.

The Hawaiian culture of love and compassion will be the strength to rebuild what Lahaina lost, and it will come from the local community. I witnessed this love and sense of community at the Red Cross facility set up within King’s Cathedral Church. The help coming from volunteers, pastors, firefighters, medical workers, and others offer hope that help to heal the strong emotions that are now being felt by locals displaced and affected by the Lahaina wildfire.

For more information about the Red Cross at Kings Cathedral and how you can help support their efforts to help people affected by the Lahaina wildfire check out this website:

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