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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Lahaina: Rising from the ashes—rebuilding a community devastated by wildfires

Jan 04, 2024 12:39PM ● By Dylan Wilcox

Lahaina after the wildfires in August 2023. (AP Photo)

In August 2023, the picturesque town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, faced an unprecedented crisis as devastating wildfires swept through the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The fires not only threatened the natural beauty of the area but also had a profound impact on the lives of residents.

Len Tomas Napala whose parents lived in Lahaina for decades said their house was completely lost. “My parents are super hardworking people who spent their lives working for the hospitality industry in order to save for their dream home. They were so proud when they finally got something they could call their own. The images after the fire has left them heartbroken. It is something they couldn’t even imagine,” Napala said.

The Lahaina wildfires were a nightmare come to life for the residents of this idyllic coastal town. The flames rapidly spread through the dry, drought-affected landscape, consuming homes, vegetation, and businesses in their path. Many residents had to evacuate their homes, leaving behind cherished possessions and memories. The fires not only took a toll on physical infrastructure but also had a profound emotional and psychological impact on the community.

Residents lost their homes, businesses, and, in some cases, even loved ones. The Lahaina wildfires were a stark reminder of the unpredictable and ruthless nature of these natural disasters. The effects were felt not only by the people directly impacted but also by the entire community, as the devastation brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of life on an island paradise.

Royal Hula Kalua-Santiago, a student at Utah Valley University whose family lived in Lahaina, organized a donation drive to send goods from those in Utah straight to those affected by the fires.

“I saw the fires Wednesday night, couldn’t sleep at all,” Kalua-Santiago said. “I felt so helpless. But thankfully the next morning I saw a post from my cousin, her mom, who works for United Airlines, was doing a shipment to Maui, and they were seeing if people wanted to donate [goods to those affected].” Kalua-Santiago then got with her team and began getting the word out via social media to drum up support. Hundreds of cars drove by UVU from Aug. 10 until Aug. 14 to donate everything from clothing to diapers and other necessities.

The multicultural student services at UVU had to act fast as a shipment was scheduled to leave in less than a week. “We then worked out our logistics, because since we were holding a drive in Orem, we’d need a day at least to get everything up to Salt Lake. But once we made our plan, we went with it,” Kalua-Santiago said.

Over 100 volunteers showed up to collect donations from individuals across the state. In the end, the donation drive was a huge success. “We filled four big 26-foot U-Haul’s, two 12-foot trailers from our UVU drive alone. Plus, all the donations my family were collecting in Northern Utah,” Kalua-Santiago said.

The road to recovery for Lahaina is a challenging one, but the spirit of the community remains strong. Residents are determined to rebuild their lives and their town. Several initiatives have been undertaken to restore Lahaina's vibrancy and safeguard it against future wildfires.

Napala reminisced how her kids would play in the backyard which her son described as a  “jungle” full of fruit trees. “I am very devastated that my parents’ home and my hometown have been destroyed,” she said. “We are very sad but staying strong.” λ