Faith and fear during the Maui wildfires

‘I know we will look back on this and see the good’

KAHULUI, Hawaii — Noni Mirkovich keeps reliving Tuesday, Aug. 8, in her dreams.

Sometimes, the fire chases her and wins. She wakes up and reminds herself that she is safe from the blaze that destroyed almost her whole town of Lahaina on the island of Maui.

“It felt like we were in the bowels of hell … the fire, the blackness, the darkness. We could see only fires.”

The ocean saved her — the ocean and her daughter and a stranger who would not give up. Because as the flames came closer and closer to their car, Mirkovich’s daughter realized their chance at survival would be to get in the water.

So Lani Williams took her elderly mother with her walker to the sea wall, where a stranger in a motorcycle helmet carried her mother on his back to the water’s edge.

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“This guy, he was young, he was strong — he could have left, but he didn’t,” Williams said. “He chose to stay with us the entire time.”

They stayed there in the water, holding on to each other for hours as the flames and smoke burned near them. They held onto each other again as they recounted the experience. 

“Any time the fire got really hot, the waves would come and keep us cool,” Williams said. 

Mirkovich prayed for strength. “Our faith and prayers made us strong but I’m not going to minimize the fear — the human part of us,” she said.

Around eight hours later, the stranger — they found out later his name was Benny Reinicke — made sure they were able to get back out of the water when the flames were gone. 

Crews use dogs to search for human remains as they move from structure to structure and car to car.
Crews use dogs to search for human remains as they move from structure to structure and car to car on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Response to the Maui fire that destroyed a large portion of the town of Lahaina, Hawaii, continues to come from neighboring islands and the mainland. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Humanitarian aid and the deadly Maui wildfires

The wildfires that Williams and Mirkovich escaped are the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii history. The death toll has reached 111 people, with Maui government officials fearing the number will rise as they search through the burned homes and entire charred neighborhoods.

Some of the first responders doing those searches are coming from the mainland, including 66 urban search and rescue firefighters from Riverside, California, that make up Task Force Six. They flew over Wednesday night, Aug. 16, and were seen working in Lahaina the next day.

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On that same flight were T and Lindsay Hughes and their three young children, returning to their home in Paia after being away visiting friends and family in Utah and other states. 

The Hugheses brought with them from Salt Lake City 32 checked bags and boxes full of donations — backpacks, school supplies, underwear, swimsuits, stuffed animals and coolers. Delta let them check the bags for free. The supplies will help 200 children going back to school, and go to other families in need.

Their friend Ciera Leavitt met them at the airport to load the supplies into a truck.

Leavitt and her family evacuated as the wind-fueled fires raged. “People reached out to me saying, what can I send your family? I said, ‘Let’s get money to people who will need it more than us,’” she said.

Leavitt’s home near Lahaina did not burn, but about 80 members of her ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lost their homes.

In just a few days after putting out a call on social media, Leavitt had raised $200,000 — allowing the Hugheses and others in Utah to buy supplies and fly them to the island. 

“Immediately people are working together, it’s the community working together,” she said. “I know we will look back on this and see the good.”

A man walks in the shelter constructed in the gym of a stake center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Kihei, Hawaii, on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Response to the Maui fire that destroyed a large portion of the town of Lahaina continues to come in from neighboring islands and the mainland. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Volunteers care for those in need

While some evacuated families stayed with friends or relatives, hundreds of people were welcomed at two stake centers belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ to sleep, eat or connect with resources.

“Within a few minutes, all of this went up,” said Tehani Kama, gesturing to the partitions in the gym at the Kahului Hawaii Stake Center. “So many people came together to be a help and support.”

The partitions created separate rooms for some aspect of privacy. Mattresses, bedding and towels provided comfort. And the gym has showers, which helped many people as well. Restaurants delivered hot meals. 

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A steady flow of volunteers and donations came through the doors on Thursday, Aug. 17. Kama said they got so many clothing drop-offs they “were bursting at the seams.” Volunteers had been working in shifts around the clock to care for those in need. 

The fires affected people Kama knows and loves — and her own heritage. Her father is from Lahaina, and her great-grandparents’ home burned down in the fire. 

She was worried about friends and family during cellphone outages and no power. “A few days of not knowing where people were was hard,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Government officials have been trying to find more permanent accommodations for the displaced individuals and families, and so this shelter may shift in purpose as needed.

“We still need to be able to provide help as they start to rebuild their lives,” Kama said.

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

The future of Lahaina

Rebuilding Lahaina and rebuilding lives will be a monumental effort. So much of the historic town appears destroyed, even with access blocked to many roads.

Leavitt was shocked by what she saw when she was allowed back on the main road on Wednesday for the first time in more than a week.

“It was the most beautiful day, sunny, and the ocean so pretty, and then you see this tragedy. … The whole time I was driving in I was trying not to break down,” she said.

Williams hopes things will be different in the future. 

“When Lahaina does come back, I hope that it’s in a way that we take care of our land,” she said. “Everything was just so dry and there’s so much construction. … I just hope that when we rebuild Lahaina, it’s in a way that we take better care of it.”