Lahaina engulfed by Maui fires: police blocked exits, family evacuates early

I’ll never forget the smoke turning pitch black. Standing in the nearby subdivision, my heart raced as the flames engulfed Lahaina. The darkening smoke that I naively believed signified control was the herald of destruction. The fire consumed everything throughout the entire town: Lahaina burned completely.

  • 11 months ago
  • August 21, 2023
7 min read
Stephanie's home consumed by the Maui fires. Stephanie's home consumed by the Maui fires. | Photo courtesy of Stephanie Evans
Interview Subject
Stephanie Evans, a 37-year-old single mother of two beautiful boys, Romeo (5) and Oliver (9), is a proud resident of Lahaina and deeply loves her community, family, and friends. Tragically, Stephanie and her family lost their home in the recent Lahaina fires.

She has a background as a Medical Aesthetician but had recently contributed her talents at the 505 art gallery “Gallerie Behl,” which also burned down in the recent Lahaina fires. In the wake of these devastating losses, any expressions of love, support, and financial assistance are deeply appreciated. Contributions can be made through their GoFundMe page, titled “Family lost everything in Maui fires.”
Background Context
The historic coastal town of Lahaina is still grappling with the full scope of destruction. Since the evening of August 8, 2023, multiple wildfires have raged in West Maui, with Lahaina, the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and a designated national historic landmark, being the most impacted. This 18th-century town has immense importance for Native Hawaiians, having been the royal residence of King Kamehameha I for three decades after he unified the islands in 1810. The fires have left thousands of homes, businesses, and culturally significant sites, including a church with royal burials and a 150-year-old banyan tree believed to be the largest in the US, in ruins. The estimated cost to rebuild Lahaina exceeds $5.5 billion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

LAHAINA, Maui — Around 7:00 a.m. on August 8, 2023, a fire raged in Kula, on the other side of the island. I went outside, smelled the smoke, and checked with my neighbor who saw the fire from the bypass line. Officials reported it as 100 percent contained, so we stayed home despite the howling winds and failing power. My mom took the kids for lunch and ice cream while I napped at home.

Around 3:00 p.m., my mother noticed the smoke getting closer and woke me. I thought everything was fine until we smelled the smoke, now worse than before. Within 10 minutes, smoke poured into our neighborhood and panic set in. We acted fast, evacuating to protect my older son who has asthma. We left everything behind, including our cats, not thinking the fire would reach us.

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Failed containment and blocked roads turn into a terrifying ordeal

Our escape proved difficult as we tried to drive north, only to be turned back by the police. We passed a small bypass fire and learned the containment had failed. Blocked roads on both sides thwarted our attempts to reach my mom’s neighborhood, so we drove towards Launiupoko.

The early departure proved to be a miracle. If we had waited, gridlocked traffic could have trapped us, costing our lives. I thanked God for waking me up at the right time and for everything that worked in our favor. Otherwise, I might have woken up to my house ablaze. As we continued our escape, the fire spread across town. We finally reached Launiupoko, thankful for leaving early.

I’ll never forget the smoke turning pitch black. Standing in the nearby subdivision, my heart raced as the flames engulfed Lahaina. The darkening smoke that I naively believed signified control was the herald of destruction. The fire consumed everything throughout the entire town: Lahaina burned completely.

For a terrifying 30 minutes, I watched, frozen in fear and disbelief. Yet, I clung to a sliver of hope; maybe only a few sides of the street would suffer. As the night wore on, my hope crumbled. Instagram filled my screen with videos of roaring flames, including one that ravaged my neighborhood. My friend’s post hinted at my worst fear: the fire consumed my house.

At 9:00 p.m., a text from my neighbor who is a firefighter spelled out the horrifying truth – not just my home, but the whole town burned to ashes. As I held my children that sleepless night, memories of my late father, our heritage, and all our experiences in that 40-year-old family home were reduced to ashes.

Community rallies as Lahaina lies in ruins, government failure is a bitter disappointment

My kids and I left only with the clothes on our backs. Fortunately, we found shelter in an Airbnb in Kihei. Donations have come in to help us buy essentials like medications. Many families remain in dire need. The town lies in ruins; landmarks, banks, and stores are all gone.

Over 1,000 people went missing, including many from my neighborhood. Due to cultural norms and the high cost of living, people left for work that day and left their children at home alone or with elderly relatives. Had I known how many kids were alone, I would have tried to rescue them, but no warnings came. Some did not even get the phone alerts due to bad cell phone reception. My sons lost a dozen friends.

Stephanie’s children survived the fires. Pictured are Oliver (left) and Romeo (right). | Photo courtesy of Stephanie Evans

Had the tsunami alarms gone off, lives could have been saved. If the police opened the roads sooner, they could have cleared traffic, but it seems they only acted when the fires got out of hand. Video footage shows people directed towards the ocean, trapped on Front Street. The fire descended quickly, forcing the decision to stay in cars or jump into the water. I’m grateful for those who selected the water and may have survived.

I feel like the government’s failure is a bitter disappointment. With a military base just 30 minutes away, they should have helped, but the response fell to the community. Police directed traffic, and friends recovered bodies, but the National Guard and military seemed absent. The community’s unity contrasts sharply with this official neglect.

Despite our government’s failure, our community’s spirit shines. Even those who lost everything are reaching out to help. The outpouring of love and support remains vital now, and the community rallies to provide food, water, supplies, and toiletries.

Lahaina family loses home to fire, a devastating text confirmed the unthinkable

On that terrible night, when I received the devastating text from my neighbor confirming the loss of our family home and the mass impact in Lahaina, a sharp, gut-wrenching pain overcame me. I fell to my knees, sobbing. My older son expressed his heartbreak by lashing out, while my younger one embraced me tenderly. Their raw emotions strengthened my resolve and reminded me we are still a family — we are home when we are together.

I haven’t returned to Lahaina since they reopened the roads. Previously, the only access was through a dangerous route, and even now, the National Guard blocks entry to our streets as they search for bodies. Once the cadaver dogs finish, we’ll be allowed back to face the ashes and what remains of our lives.

Stephanie’s house in Lahaina prior to the fire. | Photo courtesy of Stephanie Evans

For days now, I have known my home is gone, a stark reality captured in a drone picture on the news that showed nothing but ashes. I need to seek closure and I long to find my cats to give my children a sense of continuity and a connection to what was. These pets are family, and their return would be a significant relief.

My children’s adjustment to their new school in Kihei and the community’s effort to replace their lost belongings warm my heart. The loss is immense, both in property and lives, but the support we receive is everything as I manage a growing to-do list and try to find time to grieve. Life does teach lessons through hardship. We’ve found strength in one another and kindness in strangers. The humanity and willingness of others to help the community means the world to us, and I can’t thank everyone enough.

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