“Please pray for us as we evacuate. Don’t know the status of our Kula hale (home) but we leave it in Te Atua’s (God’s) hands and are blessed. We’ll see tomorrow morning.”

A picture on the text message showed distant smoke billowing just beyond a familiar backyard on Aug. 8.

Sarah Sape’s initial reaction to this message from her sister, Maeva Tahauri, who’s living in Kula, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, was that “it’s typical during dry season to have brush fires,” she told the Deseret News.

Sape knows the island well. Raised on Oahu, she spent summers in Maui, visiting family and eventually she lived there. Five years ago, she moved from Maui to Mapleton, Utah, with her husband, Lauvale Sape, and their three kids.

“The communities really do rally for each other throughout Hawaii, but on the outer islands (including Maui), you kind of have to be a little bit more tight,” Sape said. Maui is more rural, less populated, with lots of elderly residents since young people usually leave the island. It isn’t as developed as other islands, she added. “There’s almost like a village setting where you support each other 100%.”

So, after reading the text, more than 2,900 miles away in northern Utah, Sape and her family said a prayer about the small fires happening in their home island.

About 7 a.m. Utah time — 3 a.m. Hawaii time — Sape got another text from Tahauri.

The fire had reached their family’s property. Smoke and flames could be seen in the front yard. The sirens, meant to warn of a natural disaster, hadn’t awakened them, if they had gone off at all. Their home is about 36 miles from Lahaina.

A fire grows in front of Maeva Tahauri’s home in Kula, Maui, about 36 miles from Lahaina. She sent this picture and a text to her sister, Sarah Sape, who lives in Mapleton, Utah. | Maeva Tahauri

“She was packing up the truck with my parents and medical supplies and emergency kits to evacuate. Because it was already raging in the front yard,” Sape said.

Ray Wunder received a similar text from his brother, also living on Maui. His text showed footage of them evacuating as the fire was closing in fast. “I think we were all kind of worried. They said evacuation, so you know it was bigger than expected,” he said.

Wunder and his wife Jenny live in Cedar Hills, Utah, with their four children, but “Maui is home,” he told the Deseret News. They have been working hard to help in the inferno’s aftermath, as well.

The next day, social media was flooded with videos of melted cars, people floating in the sea on paddleboards to escape the fires and a drive through Lahaina, when both sides of the road were engulfed by the inferno.

“We’ve driven that road a number of times and you see how close they are to the fire,” Wunder said. “I mean, it’s scary. We have a lot of friends down there. So the first thought is, what happened? OK, where are they? What happened to them?”

There were multiple fires started that day, resulting in the devastation that has been well documented through pictures and videos.

Sape’s sister told her she wasn’t sure she’d make it out alive. “She didn’t know where the extent was,” Sape added, “because the winds were blowing, blowing 85 miles per hour. And there was no way to slow it down. Those little smoldering fires that she told us the night before? They were all raging because they grew once the winds picked up.”

A section of homes sit destroyed in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Response to the fire continues to come in from neighboring islands and the mainland. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Love one another’

From that moment, Sape and her husband have been trying their best to help those from the island.

During an interview with the Deseret News, she held a paper she had been working on until 4 a.m. The Sapes have had about two weeks of constant communication with family and other locals, using their connections to understand the needs of the island and how to fulfill them.

They recently met with other Pacific Island community leaders in Utah, trying to pull from an array of resources to plan solutions that are more long-term and stable. “Our goal is to put ‘aloha’ into action. And I know we can do that here in Utah, as a community and as a Pacific Islander community,” Sape said.

But their efforts are nowhere near what the locals on Maui are doing, Sape added. “No one’s taking a break. The firefighters, EMTs, the police officers, because they’re local. They’re local to the area and have personal ties. They don’t want to take a day off. You know, they want to go search for their family members, their friends, their coaches, their teachers, their neighbors, they want to go in and do it.”

The death count for the fires as of Friday morning is 115 and growing, with hundreds more displaced. The New York Times reported more than 1,000 people were unaccounted for; not necessarily dead, but missing.

On the mainland, Utah Valley University’s Pacific Islander Initiative was one of the first in Utah to jump into action. The group held a drive that generated donations from the community, enough to fill two U-Hauls. Sape’s family donated and also helped work the drive.

“We use our love, our aloha, to support each other. But people are going to get tired.” Sape is planning a campaign she hopes will collect $100,000 over three phases, though details haven’t been announced.

The first phase will focus on gathering supplies for islanders and the second phase will collect money for families whose children died or who have children in critical condition due to the fires. In the third phase, the foundation hopes to work with corporations to donate sports equipment for schools, clubs and community leagues.

“There’s a lot of grief and sorrow. They’re gonna rise from the ashes but they really need our help,” Sape said, her expression tender as she spoke of those impacted by the fires. Eyes wet from the thought of missing children and people with nowhere to go, she gazed out the window for a moment, before looking back with a smile.

Sape believes that seeing people gather to help Maui embodies the “aloha” spirit. The term captures the feeling of warmth and enduring kindness of the Hawaiian culture, she said.

“Everybody calls them the Aloha State. And they have a lot of aloha, they have a lot of love. But they could use a lot of love from everyone else. ... Let’s send them the aloha,” Sape said.

Jaron Wunder, 15, from Cedar Hills, cooks meat on the grill for a dinner plate sale where the proceeds will go to aiding Maui at organizer Jenny Wunder’s home in Cedar Hills on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

‘The anxiety goes up’

The Wunder children have cousins in Maui and are not sure if some of their friends made it out of the fire. The last two weeks have had them wondering, as Sape did: How can they help?

It’s hard to keep up with Maui’s day-by-day needs, Jenny Wunder said. With all resources being shipped or flown to the island, they may receive an influx of items they no longer need, while they lack necessities.

“I think in some ways the anxiety goes up with every day. There’s the fear and the worry at the beginning. But now it’s a lot of anxiety. Every passing day,” Jenny Wunder said. “That’s one more day that people are without a house, without food, without whatever they need. And what are we doing about it?”

If you’re the Wunders, hosting a Hawaiian lunch plate fundraiser is exactly the thing to do.

They’ve done similar fundraisers in the past, piling plates high with rice, grilled chicken and salads. They have reliable neighbors who’ve helped with executing the drives before. But this time was different.

Jenny Wunder posted a video showing the damage in Maui on Facebook, with the caption, “Please help us show our support for family and friends in Maui who are experiencing this tragedy. It’s devastating to see what has happened and we want to do whatever we can to help. We are selling Hawaiian plates this Saturday. Please message me or Ray to preorder! Mahalo!”

In less than two days, they stopped taking orders, with 200 plates already purchased. The most plates they’ve sold in the past was 180.

“We had about 20 crockpots going at different people’s houses,” Jenny Wunder said. There were about 15 kids ages 12-18 who’ve helped with fundraisers in the past helping to assemble plates and grill chicken, a process that took more than six hours all together.

“It’s a bit of a process, but with all the hands that helped, it was pretty easy. Like I said, we’ve done it before, but this was probably our biggest sale that we’ve ever done,” Jenny Wunder said. Her husband added, “People didn’t even order plates and we had money coming. From Japan, Texas, Washington, people saying, ‘Hey, we can’t get a plate but we’ll give you money.’”

The couple described the experience as “humbling.”

“I don’t know, we just felt like we can’t turn this down. It wasn’t for us,” Jenny Wunder said. She added that donors trusted them so they felt “the responsibility of making sure every penny is going to go where we said it would.”

And their efforts continue. Ray Wunder recently attended a meeting where people from around the state gathered to discuss how best to help the struggling, close-knit Maui community. They made a Facebook group called Utah Maui Ohana and plan to coordinate further outreach efforts with members of the group.

Even at a Lone Peak High School sports game, students from the Polynesian Club were gathering funds to donate to Maui. “I thought that was great, you know. That ‘ohana’, because they’re probably not from Maui,” but they were supporting anyway, Jenny Wunder said.

The aloha spirit

Sape said the $100,000 raised won’t go far in Hawaii, “but what we’re doing is giving them a little bit of time. Maybe that will help with their down payment. Maybe that will help pay for medical bills.”

As The New York Times reported, “Emergency responders, with help from anthropologists and cadaver dogs, must sift through a wasteland of ash and debris to find human remains. Then comes the work of identifying the bodies using fingerprints or DNA, and finding the victims’ families to deliver the news. The process is likely to continue for weeks and perhaps months.”

The article quoted Chief John Pelletier of the Maui Police Department: “We’ve got one chance to do this right and I’m not going to rush it.”

“It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to rebuild. We’re used to rebuilding,” Sape said of those from her culture. “We survived tsunamis, we survive things. But it takes the whole village, the whole island in order to rise above.”

As people continue to pour into Hawaii, Jenny Wunder adds a word of caution. “It’s an emotional time. And we just have to be sensitive and respect their wishes as much as we can.”