Utahn Ashleen Tevaga said her family in Hawaii only had time to grab their children and dogs and flee the Lahaina wildfire with the clothes they were wearing.
They all made it out of the historic western Maui coast town, which was reduced to rubble after last week’s fire, but there have been several close disasters, Tevaga said. At one point they thought they had escaped, but then the fire broke out again. Her sister-in-law had to evacuate four times, Tevaga said.
Around 2 a.m. Wednesday in Utah, Tevaga received a text message from her sister on the island. “Is everyone okay?” Tevaga asked. Her sister replied: “No. Lahaina is gone.”
According to The Associated Press, the death toll from the Lahaina fire, which began Aug. 8, had risen to 96 as of Monday, and authorities said efforts to locate and identify the dead were still in the early stages . The fire is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, the AP reported, surpassing the Camp Fire that razed Paradise, California and killed 85 people in 2018.
“Ever since this began, our entire home has been busy trying to find our family members, our brothers, our childhood best friends, our cousins, aunts and uncles,” Tevaga said. “We’re all just trying to come together now to deal with what’s left, which is actually nothing.”
“There’s a fire everywhere”
Tevaga was born on Oahu but has lived most of her life on Maui, she said. She and her husband Martin Tevaga moved to Utah from Maui three years ago this month and now reside in Herriman with their six children.
For her many family members in Hawaii, there was no advance warning that the fire was coming, “just a big rush to leave the house,” she said.
Ashleen Tevaga’s family was also affected by fires in the Kihei area of southern Maui and the central Upcountry. No fatalities were reported from these fires.
The AP reported that wildfires raged in dry bushes across Maui, fueled by strong winds from a hurricane that swept south by Hawaii.
“At one point it was so chaotic because every single family member was evacuated from a different part of the island but no one knew where to go,” Tevaga said.
The night Tevaga heard from her sister that Lahaina had been destroyed, she called her mother-in-law, who said, “There’s a fire all over the island. We don’t know where to evacuate to. There is no safe place.”
Tevaga said her husband’s family members who live in or near Lahaina lost everything, including several homes and businesses. She said at least five households have been displaced, including several children.
Now these family members have found shelter with aunts and friends. By Monday, all family members had been recorded, she said.
“Maui is a special place”
On Sunday, Tevaga was busy gathering supplies to ship to Maui, where store shelves were cleared. She said she collected essentials like period products, hair care items, oral hygiene items, lip balm and more, as well as items for babies and children like diapers, coloring books, blankets, toys and crayons.
“The lack of outside help is so severe that everyone has become interdependent,” Tevaga said. “… We’re so proud of how everyone’s handling it. To keep everything going and the community strong and the kids happy and safe, they all just stick together to support the healing process.”
Tevaga tried to persuade her mother to leave Maui and come to Utah, but she refused as the crisis continued to unfold.
“Maui is a special place,” said Tevaga. “It’s hard to get someone off this island.”
As the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina is a special haven for Native Hawaiians, rich in culture and history, Tevaga said. “It’s so hidden, it’s a safe place. … I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a different feeling. ”
Just before she and her husband left Maui to move to Utah, “we did our last drive in Lahaina and then we just sat down the street, and my husband and I just cried when we left that place,” Tevaga said . Her voice filled with emotion. “Because it’s such a sanctuary. … The people are beautiful, the community is beautiful.”
“Lahaina was my absolute favorite place to live,” she continued.
– Individuals wishing to locate loved ones who may be affected by the Maui fires can call the American Red Cross hotline at 1-800-733-2767. Anyone who would like to help bring resources to the people of Maui can make a donation Maui Strong Fundfounded by the Hawai’i Community Foundation.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.