Posted on AUG 9, 2023
LAHAINA — Tama Kaleleiki watched in dismay as a blaze fanned by strong winds engulfed the hall of Lahaina’s historic Waiola Church.
“This is very sad. It breaks my heart. We live for our church. My sister and I just cleaned yesterday,” Kaleleiki said Tuesday afternoon. “I just hope the church is strong enough to overcome this. I’m praying.”
The hall and neighboring Lahaina Hongwanji Mission temple were among multiple structures that caught fire in West Maui as a fast-moving blaze forced widespread evacuations, shut down roads and schools and prompted officials to advise the public to avoid Lahaina town — all while more than 1,000 acres burned in a separate fire Upcountry and crews watered down buildings in South Maui as a precaution.
The Lahaina brush fire, which state and county officials said was fueled by strong winds from Hurricane Dora, initially broke out around 6:37 a.m. Tuesday and burned 3 acres near Lahainaluna Road, prompting an evacuation at 6:40 a.m. in the area surrounding Lahaina Intermediate School. The fire had been declared 100 percent contained shortly before 9 a.m.
But a flareup later in the day forced the closure of the Lahaina Bypass and more evacuations as crews fought to contain it.
Stuck in a long line of Olowalu-bound cars barely moving on Front Street, a couple and their baby goat fled the thick cloud of black smoke roiling in the heart of Lahaina behind them.
“Our house just burned. I was fighting the fire,” said the man, who declined to give his name, as his wife wiped away tears.
Leeward sides of all islands have been under a red flag warning over the past few days, as strong winds and low humidity elevated the risk of fire. The heavy winds and fierce gusts that Maui County said clocked in at 80 mph Upcountry created mayhem Tuesday.
At 12:22 a.m., a fire was reported near Olinda Road, leading to early-morning evacuations of residents in the Kula 200 and Hanamu Road areas. The fire had spread to about 1,000 acres and reached as far as Kualono Place near the Kula Lodge by the afternoon, triggering proactive evacuation warnings for Piiholo and Olinda road area residents and immediate evacuation orders for Kulalani Drive and Kulalani Circle.
Patty Williams got a call from a neighbor a little after 4 a.m. saying “you have to leave, you have to evacuate.”
“I looked out my window and it was pitch black, but you could see the red glow and you could hear the fire,” said Williams, who lives in the Kula 200 subdivision.
In the subdivision mid-morning Tuesday, residents could be seen driving along the roadways while an engine from Kahului drove through the area. The neighborhood was filled with smoke and winds were still whipping trees and plants.
Williams acknowledged that the situation freaked her out.
“You didn’t know what to take or anything. They said evacuate and I had my pajamas on,” Williams said as she sat with two neighbors at the emergency shelter opened by the American Red Cross at the Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani Tuesday morning.
She didn’t take very much, only items like family photos.
“I grabbed some stuff, I put some clothes on, got some dog food. I have a giant tortoise. I couldn’t move him so I opened his gate so he could get out if he needed to,” said Williams as she comforted her 3-year-old Corgi, Alice, who was unsettled by the fire.
Williams and neighbors Irene Gombac and Lee MacDonald said they were prepared for a hurricane, but not a fire evacuation. MacDonald said it’s good to have a kit ready to go, pointing out it’s tough to be woken up in the middle of the night with authorities saying, “Please get out soon,” and “Don’t spend so much time packing.”
Gombac said they live in an area where neighbors take care of each other, and even if they didn’t know each other’s names, they asked if they were O.K.
The American Red Cross continued to staff the shelter in Pukalani Tuesday evening. Residents needed to bring their personal items with them, including food and bedding. The Maui Humane Society was also providing support for pets, which needed to be properly restrained.
Kaonoulu Ranch also opened Oskie Rice Arena in Makawao for residents needing to evacuate farm and ranch animals.
“At 2-3 in the morning, you could see the embers flying,” said Haleakala Ranch Vice President and Livestock Operations Manager Greg Friel, who was leading ranch horses into the arena with his grandson Eli Friel on Tuesday morning.
At least two structures Upcountry were destroyed by the fire, though fire officials were not yet releasing the location or other details on Tuesday afternoon. In addition to the structures, pastureland and gulches were burned.
Maui County said multiple structures in Lahaina burned, though the total count and size of the fire was not immediately known as of Tuesday night.
“We expect it to be extensive but our focus right now is on public safety and the safety of our responders. So those assessments will come likely later,” Maui County Communications Director Mahina Martin said Tuesday night.
In addition to strong winds, a lack of communications with the west side due to cell towers and landlines being down also created more challenges, Martin said.
In both Upcountry and West Maui, the wind brought down power lines and poles, which blocked traffic and affected electrical service. Hawaiian Electric said at 3:30 p.m. that about 12,400 customers were without power in West Maui, where crews were making repairs to about 30 downed poles and multiple spans of power lines in various areas, including in Puamana along Honoapiilani Highway.
Another 600 customers were offline Upcountry, including parts of Olinda, Piiholo, Makawao and Kula, as crews repaired more than 30 spans of downed power lines.
Hawaiian Electric reminded customers that downed power lines may be energized. People should stay at least 30 feet or more away. Downed power lines can be reported to 911 or to Hawaiian Electric’s trouble line at (808) 871-7777.
Maui County asked residents of both Upcountry and West Maui to conserve water because power outgoes were affecting the ability to pump water to certain locations. Drinking water stations are located at Kula Fire Station, Kula Community Center, Rice Park and Crater Road at Hydrant 373.
The lack of electricity and threat of the fire closed businesses and schools in both Upcountry and West Maui.
Kamehameha Schools Maui and Seabury Hall both closed Tuesday and will remain closed today. Some businesses in the Kulamalu Town Center were reported to be closed Tuesday. The Kulamalu area was blanketed with smoke from the Kula fire Tuesday morning.
King Kekaulike High School, where students had not yet returned from summer break, was closed Tuesday and will remain closed today, the state Department of Education said Tuesday evening.
The Lahaina District Court closed on Tuesday due to a power outage. All items that were due to be filed Tuesday in the court were extended by one day, while all hearings scheduled for Tuesday will be rescheduled, giving due consideration to statutory mandates, the state Judiciary said in an email.
Also, Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary was closed and freshman orientation at Lahainaluna High School was canceled for Tuesday. Students in grades 10-12 were not on campus because they had a waiver day, the state Department of Education said in a news release. A waiver day was also already in place for Tuesday for students of King Kamehameha III Elementary and Lahaina Intermediate. All four schools remain closed today.
Businesses all over West Maui announced via social media that they had closed due to power outages, including Merriman’s Maui in Kapalua, HouseMart Ace Hardware at Lahaina Gateway, the Hawai’i Wildlife Discovery Center and Maui County Federal Credit Union’s Lahaina branch.
Maui County’s Upcountry swimming pool and Department of Motor Vehicles satellite office in Pukalani were closed Tuesday due to smoke conditions. Kula Community Center was closed due to lack of power.
Haleakala National Park’s Summit District will remain closed today due to blocked road access as well as power outages from the wildfires and high winds. All sunrise reservations for today are also canceled. The park said it will reopen when conditions improve. Updates will be posted at www.nps.gov/hale.
Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin, who lives in Napili, said power was out all day Tuesday and that family cellphones were working intermittently. She said businesses that were able to open, such as Honolua Store, were packed with lines of folks grabbing drinks and something to eat.
In West Maui, evacuations spanned Lahainaluna Road, Hale Mahaolu, Kelawea Mauka, the Lahaina Bypass and Wahikuli. Martin said that people leaving Lahaina were hindered by downed power lines that forced the closure of Honoapiilani Highway from Hokiokio Place to the Lahaina Bypass. The road reopened after 5 p.m. after the lines were cleared.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the county closed the Lahaina-bound section of the highway starting at Maalaea.
Traffic built up as residents and workers hurried to evacuate amid fire and smoke. A group of employees from the ABC store at the Wharf Cinema Center used the beach fronting Kamehameha Iki Park to evacuate. Worker Abby Galam said she was worried about her family along Lahainaluna Road but had not been able to reach them with cell service and power out.
“We’ve been praying,” she said as she and her co-workers walked the beach, ducking under a fallen ironwood tree and timing the waves sweeping up to the top of the beach’s concrete breakwall.
Some folks in Lahaina even jumped into the ocean to escape the fire and smoke, according to Martin, who said the U.S. Coast came to transport them to safety.
The hazardous conditions sent some first responders to the hospital. In West Maui, a firefighter suffered from smoke inhalation and was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center in stable condition, Martin said. In Olinda, a Maui Police Department officer suffered smoke inhalation while assisting with resident evacuations. The officer was treated and released from Maui Memorial Medical Center, a police spokesperson said.
In addition to the Pukalani shelter, emergency shelters also opened at the Lahaina Civic Center, Maui High and Kihei Community Center. Martin said the Kihei shelter opened to accommodate evacuated residents around the island, not because of the fire in the Pulehu area, which forced the closure of Pulehu Road between Omaopio Road and Kula Highway around 7:30 p.m.
On Tuesday night, a fire truck could be seen watering down buildings at the brand-new Kulanihako’i High School as a precaution with the fire in the distance. Martin said no evacuations were in effect for Kihei as of Tuesday night.
Shortly before 10 p.m., Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen issued an emergency proclamation in response to the fires.