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News and Media

News and Media

By Founder and President Kurt Lieber

Sunset through the smoke of Lahaina wildfire

As many of you know, I was in Hawai’i recently.  Several of you have been wondering how it went for me this time…

I landed at the Kona airport on Friday, August 4th.  We had two very successful underwater (UW) cleanups on Saturday and then Sunday. 

On Tuesday, August 7th, I flew over to Maui to prepare for another UW cleanup scheduled for Sunday, August 13.  We had chartered a boat out of Lahaina. Here's a photo of historic Lahaina:

Historic Lahaina before the wildfire

The flight into the Maui airport was jarring as we approached the airstrip. The plane was jolting side to side, and at one point we must have dropped 200 to 300 feet in 10 seconds. It was kind of panicky. I saw some young girls bent over with their heads in their laps. Others were grabbing onto armrests so tightly they had white knuckles. But when the wheels touched the ground, everyone relaxed.

When I deplaned, I got in my rental car and headed to a condo I had rented in Kaanapali, which is about two miles north of Lahaina. 

On my way to the condo, I stopped at a health food store to get lunch and stock up on food for the week. I was there for about an hour before I continued on my way.

As I was driving north the winds were just ripping. The ocean was so full of white caps that it looked like it was covered in snow. No blue to be seen. Soon I saw power poles laying on their side, with the power lines laying across the road whipping in the winds.

I stopped because you never know if those things are going to send a bolt of electricity through whatever it touches. Then some cars pulled around me and rolled over them with no visible sparks. So, I followed suit. I never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed!

As I got closer to Lahaina, I could see lots of smoke ahead. When I got to the Lahaina Bypass, traffic started to slow down. I came to a full stop about half- mile from the smoke. That was at roughly 4 o’clock.

Cars pull over as Lahaina wildfire burns in the distance

The winds were really ripping now. Here's a 30-second video to show you what it was like.

Because no traffic was moving, people were getting out of their cars to see if they could get a better look.  At this time, we were just seeing smoke, but as time went on, I could see flashes of fire bursting through the smoke.

Flames of the Lahaina fire

What seemed to start out as a small brushfire was now a full-fledged inferno. I got out of my car to take some pictures and almost got blown off my feet. It was difficult for me to stand still enough to get a clear shot. My glasses got blown off my face and I finally found them about 100 feet away.

I saw a guy open his car door, but he didn’t hold on to it. The wind caught it and bent it so far that it hit his front fender and the hinges buckled. He couldn’t close his door anymore. The winds felt like 100 mph, but I later heard that they gusted up to 90 mph. Whatever! I haven’t felt anything like that before.

We saw lots of police cars rushing by us, dozens of ambulances, but only one fire truck. I guess they realized the winds were too strong for fire hoses to have any kind of effect…?

As the sun was setting, I started to see a few boats motor out of the harbor and stay just offshore. I thought this was strange, who would want to take a boat out in those seas? With that howling wind? I could also hear lots of explosions in the distance. Probably propane tanks, but I read that at least one gas station in town exploded.

The orange sky of the Lahaina fire

I waited there for five hours, not knowing what was going on and hoping somehow to get through Lahaina to my condo. And the only way to get there was to actually go through Lahaina. Never happened.

I just read that they closed the Lahaina Bypass at 3:30 and it never reopened. They were letting people out, but no one was allowed into the town.

There was no cell reception so I couldn’t call anyone, but texting did work. So, I sent a text to a few people, one of whom let me know that I could stay with him. 

I stayed the night with one of our Maui cleanup coordinators Lloyd Johnson and his wife Cristy, in Kihei. When I woke in the morning, I found out he had hosted two other people who had had to evacuate, and they slept on the living room floor.

That’s when I found out how bad the fire was. You’ve seen the footage by now. The entire town of Lahaina is no more. Ninety-six people dead as of right now, and I’m sure more to come as they haven’t even started searching the buildings. I’ve read that most people died in their cars trying to get out. The roads there are mostly one lane, so you can imagine how quickly that would have bottled up.

I’m beyond thankful that I got out of there safely. It was thanks to my travel agent I was on a flight out of there Wednesday night. There must have been thousands of people at the airport. I just saw one line of people trying to get through the security checkpoint, and there were hundreds of them standing in a line that didn’t seem to move. Luckily, I have security Pre-Check status, so I didn’t have to wait in that line and got through in minutes.

Even though the firestorm is over, the recovery is going to take years. I’ve already been contacted by people all over Hawai’i wanting to know if they can work with ODA to do what we can to first prevent any more debris from reaching the water, and secondly to remove the debris that is already in the water. All the homes, cars, boats, fuels, and plastics that burned are now a toxic mess. We have to do all we can to protect those fish and reefs from yet another manmade disaster.

Hard to think that an entire way of living can be erased in 12 hours. All those wonderful dive boats and operators, whale watch cruises, restaurants, hotels, photo and art galleries, funky clothing stores… all to live on only in our memories. Just devastating. The hearts of all of us at ODA go out to the people of Maui and to anyone who knows the people who lost their lives or were affected by this tragedy.

We just witnessed the last sunset on the town of Lahaina, as we knew it.

The orange ball of the sun can be seen through the smoke