The Fire This Time …

The Fire This Time …

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran

Maui has been leading the news locally, nationally and even internationally. But not for a reason we would want. Only a fourth indictment of a former U.S. President relegated us to the second story.

The national and international media appeared to invade Maui just hours after the August 8th fire engulfed the historic town of Lahaina and for the first couple of days, the Maui wildfire led most mainstream cable and network news shows. West Maui Senator Angus McKelvey lost his condo, getting out with just the clothes he had on. On Wednesday, West Maui was closed off without power, no cellular service, utility poles still blocking roads like they had in slowing and hampering evacuation during the chaotic Tuesday night of flames.

Sylvia Luke was acting Governor on Tuesday, August 8th—nothing really pressing since Hurricane Dora, as predicted, veered south of the islands—but it seemed to strengthen and weaken in fits and starts—and local meteorologists had forecast strong winds for several days. In flying home from Kaua‘i through Honolulu Monday afternoon, I experienced some of the turbulence as we bounced past the Kaheawa windmills before sweeping down to the Kahului runway.

On that morning, Maui fire crews contained a brush fire along Lahainaluna Road and resources could be moved upcountry to suppress flames in challenging gulch-riddled terrain in Olinda.

But the Lahaina fire at some point suddenly flared as Dora-wake winds swooped down the West Maui slopes. A witness told me a MECO pole snapped; another thought a series of poles splintered. Some Maui Fire Department (MFD) crews had remained to treat hotspots from that morning. One media story reported MFD frustratingly found water pressure inadequate in hydrant after hydrant. Anecdotally, some said pipes melted at some point as the fire moved through relentlessly. Two engines were engulfed and MFD and patrolling police started an ad hoc evacuation of Lahaina town residents.

No sirens sounded.

Cars lined up attempting to escape.
Photo: Gil S.C. Keith Agaran

Early on, the media repeatedly raised the question of notice to Lahaina residents. Hawai‘i boasts a comprehensive system of warning sirens. Anyone who has lived here for a while is familiar with the drill. 11:45 a.m. on the first day of the month. The tsunami alarm goes off. We’re supposed to then check our television or turn on our radio, and, today, probably check one of the social media platforms we use. Think North Korean missile alert. We’re supposed to pause and find out what kind of danger we’re in.

No survivors of the Tuesday night fire interviewed by a broadcast or print reporter recalled getting any kind of evacuation warning.

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda noted on Face The Nation that local residents are almost conditioned to associate our sirens to an incoming tidal wave. Our instinct is to run to the hills.

Almost a week after the Lahaina fire, emergency management personnel finally noted the siren system has not been used to warn of fires.

My Central Maui community was not directly affected—someone mentioned a small brush fire that day around maybe Waikō Road which was contained early. Kallie, my mom Lydia, Velma and most of my other family were fine (a niece and her fiancé and a daughter evacuated their Kīhei home briefly late Tuesday when the Pulehu Road fire threatened to come down Līpoa).

But Lahaina was lost. And survivors who escaped suggested early on that many did not make it out of town. That seemed unlikely, in part because you don’t want to believe that could really end up as reality.

Wildfires are not expected to kill a large number of people. They usually happen in sparsely populated rural and forested areas. The official death toll of the California wildfire that destroyed Paradise was eighty-five. Maui surpassed that number within a few days as local officials conducted initial recovery. Gov. Josh Green, M.D. warned people should brace themselves for unprecedented tragedy.

West Maui had been out of power since Tuesday. Cellular and internet service was also gone. The residents and visitors remaining in West Maui were effectively isolated with little modern ways to share information except the old-fashioned way—face-to-face. They did not know what was happening and whether anyone was coming to help them.

Remains of the Lahaina Public Library.
Photo: Gil S.C. Keith Agaran

Josh flew back from Boston, arriving late Wednesday night. He came to Maui Thursday morning to tour Lahaina town with senior U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, Molokai State Senator Lynn DeCoite, and his Maui liaison Leon Bolosan. They were somber.

I went out with the electric utility (MECO/HECO) Friday with Sylvia and Lynn. Shelee Kimura, head of the utility, had been on Maui since the fire to take a direct hand in the repairs. Crews from Honolulu and Molokai had traveled to Maui to work on clearing their equipment and figuring out how to fix their lines. Shelee noted some of the MECO/HECO workers had friends and family among the missing, had lost homes in the fire themselves and had been working long shifts to get one of its three lines back up (it’s a redundant system so much of West Maui could be connected again without bringing all three back online—some experts had said it could have taken months).

MECO’s people heated up the upper transmission line—one of three in that section of the system. They brought in portable equipment because the Lahaina substation was destroyed. That work restored some power in West Maui—about 3,700 of the 12,000 customers that MECO had in that region of the island.

MECO crews were also working to complete removing and then replacing the fallen poles. While talking to them, Angus came driving by. He waved and we flagged him down. He fled his condo with only the clothes on his back. In the few days following, he had gotten another T-shirt so now he had two. One of the MECO linemen gave him another shirt and McKelvey said he now had three. He has been agitating for services and supplies—more once he could charge his phone and more connectivity was restored. He’d texted us a few times in the days after the fire about what he and others needed when limited connectivity and power to charge his phone was made available at Kapalua Airport. He had to find and stay in a certain high place to get even a little coverage.

Even though some Starlinks were deployed to restore some communications, West Maui residents complained they still were getting little information from official government sources. The road was effectively closed even when fallen poles and other debris were cleared. Boaters and other watermen began to make trips to and from West Maui to deliver supplies that government, in the perspective of the isolated residents, was not bringing in quick enough. That continued even after the County established distribution points (the first spot picked was the Ritz Carlton which symbolically and geographically may not have been the best choice for residents closer to Lahaina town who lost vehicles or had no access to fuel—one of many growing pains in rolling out relief efforts).

Late Saturday, FEMA’s urban search and rescue/recovery teams and cadaver dogs went into the impact area. FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell led the feds in full force (President Biden approved a federal disaster declaration within six hours of Josh sending in the application paperwork and POTUS promised Josh, Brian and junior U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono all the federal government’s resources would be made available).

Front Street, August 12, 2023.
Photo: Gil S.C. Keith Agaran

Kahului representative Justin Woodson sat next to the Governor on the plane and Josh invited Justin and any other Maui legislator to tag along on the convoy into the impact zone. Justin texted me while I was walking Maka at the park and invited me and other legislators to meet them at the airport within thirty-five minutes.

My trip to West Maui with Lynn and Sylvia on Friday stayed above the impact zone (Lynn, being on O‘ahu, was asked to go along on Brian and Josh’s Thursday entry into Lahaina town)—but you could see how haunted Lahaina looked—it truly resembled a war-torn town from the movies in the distance. Hollowed out shells. Roofless. Rubble. Burned out cars and trucks abandoned on the streets. A long line of cars sat stacked at the end of Front Street—never getting out past the old Chart House.

Lahaina looked even more heartbreaking up close on Saturday.

There was hope about the Banyan tree when the arborist described some branches still had sap—not the usual ooze a healthy tree would have when stabbed—but enough to show promise of life. Water tankers were spraying it when we arrived at the square.

But the reality is the number of people we lost is going to grow as recovery teams comb more of the sensitive areas. A goal throughout the week was to move as many visitors out of West Maui which was without power or running water. Most are now gone—either to complete their vacations on another island or at home. The airlines all stepped up to improve lift out of Maui to O‘ahu or the mainland.

But the tourists seemed to almost have been replaced by journalists from every media outlet you could find. Any God respecting elected official or local influencer could appear on any cable or network news show if they were willing to get up at some godawful hour to Zoom or Skype and talk about the fire and its impacts. And the reporters captured and broadcast footage of Lahaina town—Lahaina town burning—Lahaina town desolated—Lahaina town emptied of life. Mayor Richard Bissen decided to allow some access back to West Maui conditioned on no entry into the gutted remnants of the town. Nevertheless, about two hundred people crossed into the sensitive areas, overwhelming the small force of MPD guardsmen stationed across Honoapi‘ilani Highway, including the media (the areas haven’t been cleared of toxic substances and have not been fully searched for victims). The breach of the condition prompted Rick to rescind allowing people back into West Maui. No one was supposed to go down to the town.

Recognizing many West Maui residents who fled the fire still wanted a chance to go home, the County subsequently attempted to implement a placard system to make access from Mā‘alaea easier for West Maui residents, first responders and others with a reason to go into the region. After only a few hours, MPD stopped the experiment due to the sheer volume of people who wanted to go in without meeting the criteria set out.

It’s been strange and numbing. Tuesday we were worried about Upcountry Maui (Olinda/Kula/Pulehu) because the West Maui fire was “contained”—a few hours later Lahaina town burned down overnight. The high winds made it dangerous to fly helicopters to drop water buckets on the flames—that may not have mattered because the holocaust seemed to move so quickly through Front Street, whipped forward by strong winds coming down the West Maui slopes. Josh estimated the fire moved a mile a minute.

Central Maui has been sheltering and feeding evacuees at Maui High School and the War Memorial Gym (we were also collecting donations of non-perishable food, bottled water, and toiletries at various businesses, community centers—including Binhi at Ani Filipino Community Center—and the shelter sites). War Memorial was chaotic with people trying to donate nonperishable food and other supplies lining Kanaloa—people dropped off what they had and the volume overwhelmed the people there initially—stuff was donated unsorted (food and clothing and necessities all stuffed into the same donation bag). It took a few days to get more organized so donations could be sorted and some system implemented.

The Red Cross people seemed to simply be observing and waiting to take over at some point (which they did when Criswell came to town).

Maui High—which served as a shelter more recently—was more organized—probably the same administrators and teachers and counselors volunteering like the last time it was used as a shelter with Red Cross volunteers working smoothly with them and the medical volunteers from the community clinic. They had the same kind of hodgepodge of donations but kept the piles away from the gym entrance so there could be some sorting in front of the band building.

King’s Cathedral and the Latter-Day Saints Church, and later Grace Bible, were added as shelters as the need grew. Hannibal Tavares Community Center hosted upcountry evacuees as the Olinda/Kula fire remained uncontained.

After FEMA visited Lahaina, we stopped at the largest of the shelters at the Gym—Tuesday night it was a mixture of South Maui (Kīhei) evacuees and some West Maui—Wednesday morning, Kīhei folks could return home or head to the airport while West Maui people—many who lost their homes to the Lahaina fire—replaced them at the shelters. Some visitors spent Tuesday night at the airport if they were stuck on this side when the County closed the road to Lahaina.

Some early storylines covered how Maui overnight lost a lot of historical and cultural sites—Lahaina was the Capitol of the united Hawaiian Kingdom. Lahaina also represented the push and pull that marks much of Hawai‘i’s history—the native culture and population encountering foreign and different values and thinking, and even the clash between those outside cultures themselves. Lahaina was a popular and prized stop in the whaling trade but also where early missionaries planted the first Protestant church: Waine‘e Church (later Waiola Church). Over time, the town reflected the shift to plantation culture with the population filled with Asian workers who erected the Buddhist temples, the Maria Lanakila Catholic Church and school, and the Hawaiian Anglican Church of the Holy Innocents, along the same corridor as the first Protestant house of worship.

But much of the physical presence of the history disappeared overnight in the fire, including Waiola where some Hawaiian royalty were interred as well as early missionaries, the Baldwin Mission House, Lahaina Public Library, Pioneer Inn, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Lahaina Jodo Mission (with its large statue of the Buddha), Lahaina Hongwanji, the shops and restaurants that lined Front Street, the Banyan Tree, Kamehameha III Elementary School and likely more that I’m forgetting. The fire chief told me the brick and concrete structures did the best—but most of Lahaina was wood and other organic materials. Yet the sign outside of Holy Innocents and the library survived, as did the façade of Maria Lanakila and the Jodo Mission Buddha.

I understand intellectually the value of history and culture. I really do.

As I write this, we’re in the recovery phase. People in the shelters will be moved to Kā‘anapali hotel rooms or Airbnb rentals. FEMA and other federal and state agencies will move to processing claims. The Department of Education will decide where West Maui’s children can and should attend classes. But most importantly, additional USR teams will continue the painstaking work of combing through the wreckage, continuing the recovery of people who never left Lahaina town.

One of my father’s kinsmen died during the Lahaina fire—we heard it through the family coconut wireless. It was confirmed by members of the clan living in Las Vegas who added our uncle’s spouse had also perished. We’d just seen them at a family gathering to commemorate the death anniversary of another aunt. They’d been driving to a sister’s home when their route was diverted down to Front Street—perhaps because of electrical poles fallen on other streets. When the fire began to blow cars in the stalled convoy, they abandoned their truck which may have already caught fire. Unable to hoist himself over the wall, he apparently implored her to save herself.

I broke it to my mother we lost two of our relatives. But after driving to work, another relative instead shared my aunt actually survived. She jumped into the ocean. A niece showed her mother a video posted on social media showing a woman clinging to the breakwater that may have been our aunt. My aunt was picked up by a boat.

We were fortunate the rest of our extensive clan survived, even if they all lost their houses and businesses. They are alive. As another survivor texted me, confirming his entire family escaped, “I would count that a victory.”
But there will be more casualties. And some, DNA analysis allowing, will be identified and next of kin informed. Not all of the remains will be identified in the near future. Experts to this day continue to work on identifying the remains of people who died on 9/11.

Sylvia, Lynn and I also toured King’s Cathedral which transformed its entire sanctuary and large reception space and classrooms into a shelter. Afterwards, one of the pastors invited us to pray before we left. That was the highlight of my week.

And the media and the survivors and those who likely have lost family and friends understandably have moved to the next stage of grief—they are angry and looking to blame someone. Why didn’t the sirens go off? Why didn’t MECO de-energize the lines in Dora’s wake? Why didn’t the government get food, water and other supplies quickly to the people who were left in West Maui without electricity, flowing water and no way of communicating with the rest of the island or state? Instead, all they saw were regular people sailing over from Molokai and Mā‘alaea to bring supplies to Nāpili because they couldn’t bring help by land.

In a few days, the news media may have already turned to another story. The Lahaina fire is just another item of history, perhaps visited in time to check on progress. But we, as a community, will still be here looking to see what we make of ourselves next. But me? I’m still just a little numb.

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran represents Central Maui in the State Senate. Donations for relief from the impacts of the Lahaina fire can be made to the Maui Strong Fund with the Hawai‘i Community Foundation.