Monterey Peninsula residents recount Maui fire experiences – Monterey Herald

On Sunday, Aug. 6, when Carmel residents Carol and Scott McKibben arrived on Lanai, an “apostrophe-shaped” island just over 16 miles across the Auau Channel from Lahaina, Maui, they took in the characteristic rustle of the palms as more of a “Welcome to Hawaii” than the harbinger of a hurricane.

Still, something in the air felt odd. As familiar as the McKibbens are with the islands, and fully aware that the weather there is always changing, that inexplicable spine-chill crept in, suggesting that something was not normal. Particularly on Monday, when storm winds intensified, reportedly, to more than 50 mph.

“On Tuesday, when they canceled the ferries from Lahaina to Lanai, which relies on them to bring in everything from tourists and employees to food and medicine,” said Carol McKibben, “they made it all about the wind. We could see the smoke over Lahaina, yet no one spoke of the fire.”

People who live full-time on Lanai, she said, are closely connected to Lahaina by family and friends. People who commute to work on Lanai, mainly service workers for the Four Seasons Resort Lanai and Sensei Lanai, could not get back to find family and friends, to see if they still had a home. Very few do.

“Once Lanai was cut off from Lahaina, there was an immediate run on the two little grocery stores,” McKibben said. “Right away, people bought out all the meat and chips. I found that odd. What would people do with all that meat when we had no power to cook it?”

As the week progressed, the air over Lanai became dark and filled with smoke, she said, even miles away from the fire.

Scott and Carol McKibben returned to Carmel on Friday, having flown back the way they came, from Lanai to Oahu, and back to California.

“The airport at Oahu was neither overcrowded nor frantic, but people were quiet, shellshocked, sad,” she said. “We left chaos on Maui, trepidation on Lanai, and uncertainty everywhere else. The aftershocks continue throughout the islands, and we feel them, ourselves, even back in Carmel.”

Couldn’t see it coming

We have come to understand that just about anything can happen in life. And still, certain events go well beyond what we can fathom, understand, accept. Many of us have heard of a hurricane on Maui: the wild wind force that flings a palm tree sideways, the driving rain, the darkened sky. But fire?

Yes, Historic Lahaina Town was a bit of a tinderbox. But it lined up along the coast of a tropical island. Surely no one imagined it would burn down, obliterating the town King Kamehameha made the capital of his kingdom in 1802, effectively erasing more than 200 years of history and tradition, art and artifacts, activity and entertainment, and a 150-year-old Banyan tree. Yet, most devastating is the as-yet untold numbers of lives lost.

What began on a Sunday evening as planned, a happy, relaxing vacation on Maui for Dr. Zach Koontz and his wife and daughter, ended a week later after what he called a strange and terrible few days.

“We went snorkeling in Lahaina on Monday,” said Koontz, “and then we shopped on Front Street, where my daughter got her hair braided, before we returned to our hotel in Kapalua, about 15 miles north of Lahaina.”

The Koontz family awoke early Tuesday morning to no power — no electricity, no cell service, no Wi-Fi, no Internet, no hot water. Aware of the previous night’s wild wind, they presumed it all would resume, soon.

Unaware that more than three hours earlier, a fire had erupted in Lahaina, Zach Koontz left the hotel around 10 a.m. to play golf at King Kamehameha Golf Club in Wailuku, on the other side of the island. He’d almost reached Lahaina, when he made a potentially lifesaving decision. Presuming the wind would wreck his game, he decided to return to the hotel and, instead, read a few books by the pool.

“I made a really fortunate decision,” said Koontz. “We had received very little information about what was going on, until we learned of a school on a hill that had cell service. We started retrieving text messages from friends asking if we were OK and sending articles that let us know how bad it really was.”

At first, hotel residents were told to shelter in place. On Wednesday, the Koontz family was planning to go snorkeling near the hotel, when they received a knock at the door from hotel staff, letting them know all guests were being asked to pack up and leave.

“And go where?” said Koontz. “ We drove around for a while, charging our cell phones.”

Koontz considered heading to the airport, until he heard some 12,000 evacuees were camped there, trying to get off the island. Instead, as soon as the southern route along Honoapiʻilani Highway opened, he drove his family down to Wailea, where friends were staying.

“Driving up and over the Lahaina Bypass, we saw complete desolation below, with burned buildings and cars, stretches of smoldering ash, and people wandering around, listlessly. It was a different planet,” said Koontz. “And there was such a weird silence. It was all very unsettling. A lot of traffic became backed up, as people were pulling over and looking down the hill toward Lahaina.”

The Koontz family returned to Monterey on Saturday, as planned, shaken by a vacation that had not gone as planned. On Sunday morning, Zach Koontz, folding laundry, paused for a moment and studied his “Kimo’s” T-shirt, a souvenir from a previous trip, reminding him of the popular Front Street restaurant, with legendary carrot muffins and “Hula pie,” and its polished wood furniture and bar overlooking the sea, now just a stretch of ash.

“The trauma and devastation are still very fresh,” said Koontz. “Exhausted from the whole experience, we didn’t sleep well the first few nights, even safely at home. I will say, once we got to Monterey and saw the fog bank, we exhaled and thought, ‘Just drive toward the fog.’”

Here to help

Sean and Deanne Everton flew into Maui on Tuesday, amid heavy winds, on the day, they said, “everything went down.” Planning to spend a month at their new condo, just north of Lahaina, between Kaanapali and Napili, the couple hopped into an Uber.

“We knew the winds would be challenging and had heard there was a fire, but we’d been told it was contained,” said Sean Everton, a professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “Along the way, we saw trees on the ground and downed powerlines we were driving over. Once the sky got really black, and our driver asked if we had masks with us, we realized we were driving toward the fire.”

They convinced their Uber driver to turn back.

“It didn’t seem real,” Deanne Everton said. “I thought, at any moment, the wind would pick up our car and drop us into the ocean. Power lines that had been up when we started our drive, were down. People were hopping out of their cars and trying to move trees off the road.”

In the ensuing days, the Evertons tried to stay out of the way of search and rescue efforts, while working to help as much as they could. They bought water, coolers, diapers, feminine hygiene products, paper plates, napkins and other essentials, and dropped them off at the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku, west of the airport, which became an impromptu hub, they said, for shelter and donations.

“Otherwise, it’s very quiet and feels kind of eerie,” Deanne Everton said. “We went for a long walk on the beach and saw only two or three people. When we went to a restaurant, everyone was talking about the fire. This community is so supportive of one another. They hear a plea for help and are right on it.”

After nearly a week on Maui, the Evertons decided to fly to Kauai for a week of respite. At that point, they may try to return to Maui and, possibly, their condo. Or, perhaps they’ll just come home.

Waiting to hear

Almost every morning since Aug. 6, Jacqueline “Jake” Kirkpatrick, 85, left her Pacific Meadows home and reported to her job at Ace Hardware at the Crossroads Carmel. Throughout the day, as she helped customers find the tools to take care of their homes, she wondered when and if she was going to hear from her son, Eric Dane Mansfield, an avid surfer and search-and rescue volunteer on Maui.

On Aug. 14 at 1:30 a.m., she received a call from her son say he was fine but had been very busy.

“My son, Eric, 59, is a freelance technical writer and rescue volunteer, just the kind of guy who would be on his surfboard, pulling people out of the water,” Kirkpatrick said. “When I asked him what it was like in Maui, he said, ‘You know, Mom, the natives and locals are taking this in stride, and everyone is focused on trying to help each other and remain calm. The mainlanders are interested in getting themselves and their possessions off the island.’”

Very athletic and equally philanthropic, Mansfield, says his mother, is the perfect rescue volunteer. He’s kind, calm, trained, and speaks the local language, which offers a more reassuring message to someone who needs to be soothed.

“Eric says a big issue not yet being addressed,” she said, “is the need for more people involved in the emotional side of rescue. People are so emotionally distraught; they need any sort of counseling they can get. I understand that. It’s been a pretty anxious week for me, as well.”

The websites of various Lahaina businesses have posted messages such as, “We are closed due to fires on Maui. Please keep our ‘ohana’ and island home in your hearts.” Ohana, in Hawaiian, means “family,” in the broadest, deepest, most meaningful sense of the word.

For information on how to benefit Maui, consider visiting  www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/maui-strong, which states it will not collect a fee for donations to the Maui Strong Fund; 100 percent of the funds will be distributed for community needs.

 

 

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