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Lahaina Fires: One year later

Kauaula Valley families determined to go home; fire officials, residents recall blaze that coincided with hurricane

Windswept flames and smoke rush toward a pair of luxury homes in Launiupoko on the morning of Aug. 24, 2018. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Yolanda Dizon doesn’t like to dwell too much on the night of the devastating fire that razed her home in Kauaula Valley.

But the images and feelings are still fresh in her mind — the winds blowing hard, the fire riding up the mountain above their homes.

“We try not to reflect on it too much because it’s still kind of hard, and we still haven’t gotten home yet,” Dizon said. “Just imagine how it’s going to be like when we get home. My children, they want to go home, but I know they’re scared. They’re still in fear. But we’re still going to go home.”

A year after three fires burned more than 2,000 acres from Maalaea to Kaanapali, families in Kauaula Valley still are unsettled. Some have been staying with family and friends, others at Ka Hale A Ke Ola’s homeless shelter. Just one of the 11 homes that burned in the valley has been rebuilt.

“We can’t even hire contractors, much less put monies together to get material for the home, and that’s why it’s taking so long,” Dizon said. “We tried to get funds from government loans, from OHA, and zero, because of where we live. We do not exist as far as the banks are concerned, as far as the government is concerned.”

A wildfire raged through Kauaula Valley on the night of Aug. 24, 2018, with residents fleeing for their lives. This photo of burned cars and homes was taken about a week after the fire. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A year ago, Dizon and thousands of other Maui residents were buckling down for what was expected to be a stormy weekend with Category 3 Hurricane Lane passing through. Instead, they were rustled from their homes in the dead of the night by a fast-moving wildfire.

The first of the three fires began in Maalaea at 9:45 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2018, on the mountain ridge facing the intersection of North Kihei Road and Honoapiilani Highway. The fire was located over a mile up the hillside and inaccessible to crews, who decided to monitor the fire and address it at daylight.

Then at 12:45 a.m. Aug. 24, 2018, a second fire was reported at Kauaula Valley and Punakea Loop. Unlike the previous fire, this one threatened homes and triggered evacuations as crews raced to stop the blaze.

At 7:30 a.m., a third fire broke out behind the Lahaina Civic Center. Winds quickly swept the fire toward Puukolii Road, the Kaanapali Golf Estates and the Kaanapali Hillside subdivision, prompting another round of evacuations.

In Kauaula Valley, Dizon and her family fled on foot as the wind pushed the flames over them.

The scene at the Bergson family home after the fire was “just total devastation,” said Chuck Bergson. “Literally just rock columns standing. Everything else was just down to the ground.” -- Photo courtesy Bergson family

“We were running because we couldn’t get to our cars to even get out of there,” said Dizon, who suffered first-, second- and third-degree burns to her arms, legs and back.

Many of the households included young children, some of whom were Dizon’s own relatives — a niece and her four children under the age of 10, another niece with grandchildren ages 5 to 7.

“Imagine them running in the dark after midnight, howling winds, Hurricane Lane winds, and the fire is chasing us out of there,” Dizon said. “Running in the dark until we could get to trucks of other families that live in the same area, a little further away from the fire. We all hitch in and get out of there. No way we could get out with our cars.”

That second fire proved the most devastating, burning about 1,500 acres from Launiupoko to Lahainaluna, destroying 21 homes and 27 vehicles and racking up $4.3 million in damages.

After losing her home, Dizon, her teenage children, her adult son and his wife and children stayed with Dizon’s youngest son in Wailuku. But the work commute was tough, and they eventually moved in to the shelter while Dizon stayed in Wailuku.

A huge brush fire burned through the night in Lahaina’s Makila subdivision on Aug. 24, 2018. -- GILBERTO SANCHEZ photo

“Majority of our families are staying there,” Dizon said. “If not, you’d be living on the beach.”

One of the first things the families did after clearing the land of debris was put the waterlines back in. They rebuilt their homes on weekends and when help was available. Dizon said one of the 11 homes has been finished, and that families have been relying on the help of relatives and friends.

Habitat for Humanity Maui donated appliances and funds, but they couldn’t help build. Sherri Dodson, executive director for Habitat for Humanity, explained that “we are a licensed contractor, and building without a permit is not something that we could do.”

“We loved working with the families from the Kauaula valley and those from Honokohau valley after the disasters,” Dodson said. “We met with most of them to see what they would need to help rebuild. Most were pretty adamant about rebuilding themselves. They are strong and proud Hawaiians, and we respected their wishes.”

Dodson said that as a nonprofit, Habitat was able to accept gifts and forward them to the families, as well as offer the discounts it gets with vendors like Honsador Lumber to the families.

Maui firefighters defended Lahainaluna High School as a wildfire burned the edges of the campus. The fire blackened a baseball practice field and singed the track. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Dizon added that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs had agreed to provide funding, but “we haven’t received a cent.”

When asked why the families hadn’t yet received the funding, OHA said Thursday that its Board of Trustees “today approved $35,000 in Emergency Disaster Relief for the families in Kauaula, Maui, affected by the fires in August 2018. Based on discussions with the community, 11 families will receive $2,000 each, and nine families will receive $1,000 each.”

For now, Dizon’s decided she’s “not going to dwell on what we couldn’t get. We’re just going to focus on ‘it’ll happen.’ ”

Last year, Kauaula Valley families were frustrated over the county’s response and what they saw as a disregard for kuleana families. They found little comfort in the fire report, which listed the cause as undetermined. Dizon said she’s grateful to the men and women out in the field fighting the fires, but that she wanted to speak face to face with administrators, “and I keep getting the runaround.”

She said she’s waiting for fire officials to come to the valley and get a feel for the lay of the land in case of the next emergency.

Firefighters used a technique on the Lahaina wildfire known as “point zone protection,” pushing the fire around homes and subdivisions and getting it into an open area where they could control and contain it, said Fire Chief David Thyne. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Dizon is less concerned about the cause of the fire and more focused on what the community can do moving forward. For one thing, Kauaula Valley families are going to have wider-than-recommended firebreaks between their homes and the fallow fields of dry brush that they say other landowners fail to control. And, everybody’s going to be “on guard, in each house, watching the four corners from mauka to makai.”

“Because nobody else is going to do it for us,” Dizon said. “Launiupoko people are in the same predicament. We’re talking to some of our neighbors that actually farm up there. They’ll be watching out, too. They ain’t going to go through what they went through again. For now, that’s what we can do.”

Recent fires have brought back painful reminders of their own close call, but Dizon is determined to bring her family home.

“We need to take that first step,” she said. “We need to sleep in our homes that first night, and from then on work it.”

When asked whether the community could help, Dizon said she couldn’t speak for other families, but that “for me and my house, we’re good.” She expected her home to be completed in September; her son and his family plan to move in while their house is finished. She said she was grateful and humbled by the outpouring of aloha from the community.

‘Just total devastation’

Chuck Bergson was 2,500 miles away, taking his older daughter, Danielle, to her freshman year at the University of California San Diego, when his Lahaina home caught fire.

“I got a call from a neighbor saying she’s watching our house burn to the ground,” said Bergson, the president and chief executive officer of Pacific Media Group. “It was a pretty alarming experience.”

His wife, Gail, and younger daughter, Rachel, were at the family’s home in the Puunoa Subdivision above Puamana. Because it was so windy from the incoming storm, they closed up the house and switched on the air conditioning, which Bergson said they don’t normally do.

“So because of that they didn’t smell the smoke,” he said. “Fortunately, we had a caretaker at the house, and she did smell the smoke and knocked on the door and woke them up. But at that point they barely could get out because the smoke was so thick. They basically got out with the clothes on their back and our family cat. No money, no credit card, no driver’s licenses, nothing.”

Bergson wasn’t able to come home and survey the damage until about a week after the fires.

“It was just total devastation,” he said. “Burned up cars in the driveway. Literally just rock columns standing. Everything else was just down to the ground.”

Another home in their neighborhood also burned down, but the family had recently moved to the Mainland and put it up for sale.

Community support in the wake of the fires “was unbelievable,” Bergson said. Offers of lodging came pouring in. The Bergsons hopped between four different homes before finding a place to rent in Launiupoko, where they’ve been since November.

“We travel very lightly these days,” Bergson said. “We went from having a house where we lived for 14 years and being on the west side for all that time, to basically having three suitcases.”

One of the more precious items lost in the fire was the Bergsons’ wedding album. What they didn’t know was that after their Kapalua ceremony in October 1996, Gail Bergson’s mother had contacted the photographer and asked for an album of her own.

“She gave it to us for Christmas this year,” Chuck Bergson said.

The family is planning to rebuild on their old property. It took about a year to get the plans drawn up, deal with insurance and mortgage companies and obtain a building permit. In the meantime, they’ve still been paying mortgage on their former home, though insurance has helped to offset it.

“You learn from the experiences you have,” Chuck Bergson said. “One thing I tell people frequently, we had a cedar shake roof on our house. And so did the other house that burned down. So when we rebuild we’re not going to have a cedar shake roof, I can tell you that.”

When asked if he was concerned about rebuilding in a fire-prone area, Bergson said “yes, a little bit.” But some things you can’t plan for — like a rampant wildfire in the middle of a hurricane. And, Lahaina is home. Chuck Bergson has lived there for almost 30 years, and Gail Bergson for almost 40. They’ll do what they can to make their home defensible, but “you can’t live in fear either,” he said.

Meanwhile, homeowners are trying to get smarter about fires. Gordon Firestein of the Launiupoko Firewise Committee said that the community has worked toward two main goals – educating residents and clearing brush.

“The biggest messages we are trying to impart to the neighbors is on the importance of defensible space, i.e., clearing a buffer of vegetation away from homes and other structures; the importance of choosing the right building materials, especially for the roof (cedar shake roofs, for example, are simply inappropriate in this area); and having a plan and being prepared to evacuate,” Firestein said via email.

Firestein said some of the biggest lessons residents learned from last year’s fire were that any high-wind event could mean high risk for fire, and that a hurricane warning doesn’t just mean “loads of rain.” And, because fires can start in the middle of the night, people should avoid sleeping with earplugs or doing other things that make it harder to hear the shouts of neighbors or the smell of a fire, he said, even suggesting that people get air horns to warn neighbors.

“In our case, we were sound asleep when a neighbor — who tried unsuccessfully to call us — pounded on our door to wake us up,” Firestein said. “She lives on the diagonally opposite side of the neighborhood, happened to be awake at 1 in the morning, saw the orange glow, drove across the neighborhood, and jumped two of our locked gates to get to our door.”

Planting trees, awaiting repairs

At Lahainaluna High School, a blackened section of track is a reminder of just how close the fire came. But aside from the smoke and ash, no buildings were damaged by the fire.

The track is still awaiting repairs, and ownership of the school’s stadium was recently transferred from the Lahainaluna High School Foundation to the state Department of Education, said Lindsay Ball, complex area superintendent for the Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai complex.

“Repairs to the track are in the process of being submitted to the department’s repair and maintenance system,” Ball said. “A timeline and the cost of repairs are currently pending.”

A baseball practice field also was burned in the fire. The field, now used mainly for PE classes, “has naturally recovered,” said Lahainaluna Principal Lynn Kahoohalahala.

Meanwhile, the school is working with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources on a reforestation project, planting native species that are “more resistant to fire than just the grass that we originally had,” Kahoohalahala said.

“These plants are being planted behind J building, in an area that was affected by the fire,” she said. “Students from our agricultural learning center and boarding program started planting the Native Hawaiian plants as an after-school project in January, and we hope to finish the project this school year.”

Kahoohalahala was unsure how many teachers and students lost homes to the fires.

“Our school helped teachers and students cope by providing counseling services, school supplies and general support for them and their families,” she said. “We did our best to get everyone back to school to return to a sense of normalcy.”

Hotter days, bigger fires

By the time fire crews arrived on scene in the dead of night, conditions were too dangerous to go into Kauaula Valley, and they had to make the tough call to focus on saving Lahaina town, recalled the Lahaina station’s battalion chief last year.

Firefighters spent the night jumping over fences and going through backyards to protect homes. They defended the homeless shelter from 30-foot fire swirls. They battled high winds and low visibility, at times tripping and rolling down hills because they couldn’t see the terrain.

When Maui Fire Chief David Thyne saw the damage later that morning, “my heart just sank.”

“I worked for 15 years in the Lahaina station,” said Thyne, the assistant chief of operations at the time. “I’d done a lot of fires out there, and I had never seen anything as devastating as that fire was. . . . I mean, we’ve had bigger acreage, but not as much devastation as far as homes being lost.”

Afterwards, investigators scoured the hillside for clues of the cause. They visited the Makila Hydro plant, checked out a possible cooking spot, examined the reservoir and searched for downed poles or lines. They found what looked like a gas can or primer can but couldn’t determine whether it was the cause of the fire.

Thyne said fire investigators can suspect or theorize, but they can’t say for sure without proof.

“Could power lines have been it? Could it have been an arc? Can’t say for sure it wasn’t,” Thyne said. “Did anybody in the area ignite it? Domestic squabble, malicious intent? Can’t prove it wasn’t. Can’t prove it was. There are kinds of things that unless we find evidence that was the cause, we can’t blame or say definitively that was the cause. That was the hard part.”

Thyne said the Fire Department met with the families in Kauaula Valley to talk about their frustrations and concerns. They discussed access — in this case, crews couldn’t even go in because the fire was at the mouth of the valley — and water, explaining that the hydrant in the valley was set up years ago by Pioneer Mill and was more of a standpipe than a legitimate hydrant. The Fire Department has trucks and tankers that can carry water, but access depends on the stream at the beginning of the valley.

“I fought a couple of fires in the valley, and it was very difficult to get our vehicles in there because of the roads,” Thyne said. “We talked about the possibility of a better road to get our rigs in there. If we can’t get in there, it’s going to be difficult. During the daytime, we have helicopters that can help with air drops. But middle of the night like that, helicopters cannot fly.”

Thyne said the department hopes to go up to the valley as the homes are rebuilt to get a sense of where the homes are and exchange contact information.

While the Lahaina fires were an ill-timed combination of flames and hurricane-force winds, they were also a sobering reminder of the growing challenges that firefighters are facing.

“I’m not advocating for the platform of global warming or climate change, but I think there’s an awareness, at least for us in the fire service, that the fires are going to be different with the weather,” Thyne said. “All of a sudden, 90 degrees is a norm now. How many times in our youth did we see 90 degrees on the temperature scale? Now it’s normal.”

The chief said that over 90 percent of the time, “we roll up to the fire, it’s 1 acre in size, we can put a hose around it, drop some helicopters and contain it.”

But with the Lahaina fire, it was too dangerous for helicopters, and crews had to be careful about committing their resources to one spot too quickly, because the fire was moving so fast. Instead, they had to think ahead. They used a technique known as “point zone protection,” pushing the fire around homes and subdivisions and getting it into an open area where they could control and contain it.

Crews employed similar tactics during a recent 9,000-acre blaze that began July 11 south of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road. The fast-moving fire was fanned by strong winds and scorched an average of 25 acres a minute. Once it jumped the highway, crews stationed their resources ahead of the fire, spraying down buffer zones around the Maalaea Power Plant, Kealia Pond and the Maui Humane Society, and taking a chain saw to dead trees. They pushed the fire around those places, but as it continued to grow, they moved their resources ahead to protect homes in north Kihei.

“We’re learning to step back and go, ‘OK, what can we do to protect it from consuming things ahead of it versus trying to catch it from the back and stretching around it?’ ” Thyne said.

Thyne encouraged residents to create a defensible space of at least 300 feet around their own homes. If that’s not possible, he suggested getting rid of as much “combustible” material around the house as possible — piles of wood and cardboard boxes, dead branches and leaves, old vehicles and leftover oil.

And, always have an evacuation kit at the ready, Thyne said.

Lahaina Strong

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin said it was difficult to see the destruction, especially in Kauaula Valley, but that she thought police and fire made the right calls that night.

“It took every available resource to hold the line to keep it from burning Lahaina town and Lahainaluna,” said Paltin, a Napili resident who was a lifeguard at the time. “If they would’ve crossed the gulch to go into the valley and gotten stuck in there, there was pretty much no room for error.”

When Paltin came in to work that morning, “basically everything was on fire.”

“I remember we lent the Fire Department our lifeguard truck to go to the Kaanapali fire because they were out of gas from fighting the Kauaula fire all night,” Paltin said. “At least that way, they had lights and sirens. . . . It was a brand-new truck, and it smelt like smoke for weeks after.”

The lifeguards took a Jet Ski out in case of any emergency calls. They ended up treating a man who came off his sailboat after inhaling smoke all night and had a hard time breathing.

“We drove around Mala (Wharf) and Front Street, and it was kind of like a zombie town,” Paltin said. “There was a big tree branch down on Bubba Gump’s. . . All sorts of people were walking on the street with nowhere to go because they got evacuated.”

In the wake of the fire, the community rallied. Places like Waiola Baptist Church and Na Aikane ‘O Maui Cultural Center were quickly overwhelmed with donations of clothing, food and water. Hotels housed evacuees, while restaurants sent their executive chefs to cook hot meals for displaced residents and volunteers.

People started Facebook pages to match up donors with those who’d lost homes. When someone in Kauaula Valley needed a generator, the call was sent out online, people showed up with funds and someone went out to Costco to grab it.

Honokowai resident Jordan Ruidas started a “Lahaina Strong” Facebook fundraising effort that raked in more than $150,000 in donations. Combined with a fundraising event and other donors, Ruidas collected nearly $200,000 that was distributed evenly among the fire-affected families.

“It was super inspiring how our community came together,” said Paltin, whose campaign manager, Maria Lindz, and future executive assistant, Jen Mather, were closely involved in organizing donations. “I met plenty of people because of what happened that are still my friends.”

The fires also had an impact on how Paltin views matters as a council member.

“It definitely caused me to take a second look about how we develop and what areas,” Paltin said. “For me, one of the biggest fears is to approve a development in an area I know has an extreme hazard and not take that into consideration and that subdivision or development gets burned down.”

Paltin, who voted against two recently proposed housing projects in wildfire-prone Launiupoko, said she’s concerned about the county developing in certain areas without adding more emergency services.

“For a resident population, the amount of fire stations and engines that we have is pretty good,” she said. “But when it’s tourist season and we have a full load, it really opened my eyes that we have nowhere near enough shelters.”

Emergency management is under the purview of the council Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee that Paltin chairs, and she said she got the chance to visit the county’s emergency operations center. She was “blown away at how small it is and super, super old school when we’re talking a population of 150,000 and counting.”

Paltin said she’d heard of past plans to build a new emergency operations center that never panned out. Her office has requested the plans, and “depending on what it looks like,” she may try to bring the plans forward again.

“If we’re going to grow the population, we need to grow our response capabilities, and we definitely need to upgrade,” Paltin said.

“I think you can never go wrong in investing in disaster preparedness sooner than later.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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Firewise tips: Get rid of combustible clutter

The Maui Fire Department advises people to create a firebreak around their homes of about 300 feet, but that’s not always possible for people who live in condos and crowded neighborhoods. So, Fire Chief David Thyne said residents should focus on keeping their homes clear of combustible clutter.

“If the weeds are cut and we don’t stockpile yard trimmings by the fence, those are things we could do to help us to better protect the homes when these fires do happen,” he said.

The National Fire Protection Agency offers the following tips for reducing fuel risk around homes:

• Clear off pine needles, dead leaves and anything that can burn from your rooflines, gutters, decks, porches, patios and along fence lines. Falling embers will have nothing to burn.

• Store away furniture cushions, rattan mats, potted plants and other decorations from decks, porches and patios. These items catch embers and help ignite your home if you leave them outside.

• Screen and seal. Wind-borne embers can get into homes easily through vents and other openings and burn the home from the inside out. Walk around your house to see what openings you can screen or temporarily seal up.

• Rake out any landscaping mulch to at least 5 feet away. Embers landing in mulch that touches your house, deck or fence is a big fire hazard.

• Trim back any shrubs or tree branches that come closer than 5 feet to the house, as well as attachments and any overhanging branches.

• Remove anything within 30 feet of your house that could burn, such as woodpiles, spare lumber, vehicles and boats – anything that can act as a large fuel source.

• Close all windows and doors if ordered to evacuate. Many homes are destroyed by embers entering these openings.

For more information, visit firewise.org. The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization also offers resources to communities at hawaiiwildfire.org.