Disasters

On Maui, another fire is burning but capturing less attention than Lahaina

Firefighters are still battling hot spots in the Upcountry Fire. The deadly wildfires in Maui, Hawaii fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora caused fires in Upcountry as well as destroying the historic city of Lahaina.
Firefighters are still battling hot spots in the Upcountry Fire. The deadly wildfires in Maui, Hawaii fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora caused fires in Upcountry as well as destroying the historic city of Lahaina.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

The fire that roared across the historic town of Lahaina last week was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. It's killed more than 100 people and the death toll continues to climb. But another fire is still burning on Maui.

About 25 miles away from the painstaking search for victims in Lahaina, scores of people are struggling with losses of their own in Kula.

The Upcountry Fire, as it's called, moved with explosive speed. The wind whipped it up a gulch behind Kyle Ellison's home on the edge of Haleakala National Park, one of Maui's natural gems. Ellison looked over to his wife and asked, 'do you smell that?'

Homes were destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. The deadly wildfires in Maui, Hawaii fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora caused fires in Upcountry as well as destroying the historic city of Lahaina.
Homes were destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. The deadly wildfires in Maui, Hawaii fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora caused fires in Upcountry as well as destroying the historic city of Lahaina.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

"We looked behind us and we have smoke billowing out of the gulch a hundred yards behind us," Ellison said.

The wildfire quickly jumped to a cluster of homes nearby — including the one Ross Hart and his family have lived in for 36 years. "Sparks flew over. Looked like, wow, fire and brimstone. It was beautiful but dangerous," recalled Hart.

With several of his neighbors last Tuesday night Hart fought the flames hard with a mix of garden and fire hoses. And then the water pressure just died. Fountains of embers and choking smoke, he says, soon took over.

Ross Hart, right, is finding keepsakes from the debris after his home was destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. He is helped by his neighbor Austin Phillips and Preston Cherry who is working the chain saw.
Ross Hart, right, is finding keepsakes from the debris after his home was destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. He is helped by his neighbor Austin Phillips and Preston Cherry who is working the chain saw.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Ross Hart is working to clean up his property after his home was destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. He is running a sprinkler to keep the dust down.
Ross Hart is working to clean up his property after his home was destroyed in the Upcountry Fire. He is running a sprinkler to keep the dust down.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

"As I watched the house start to catch fire in one corner I ran in the house, grabbed my guitar, threw it in the truck. And it was — gone."

Now, the house where Hart raised his four kids is just ash and debris. But there are hints of memories.

In the gray and black mess there was a bright blue rock in the rubble.

"Yeah it was a vase full of colored stone like marbles. It just melted all down and the colored stones are inside," Hart said.

Gabriel Morgan, a surfer from Kihei volunteers to help people who have lost their homes in the Upcountry Fire. He is cleaning up Ross Hart's property. The surf shop where he worked, Jaw Surf in Lahaina burned down.
Gabriel Morgan, a surfer from Kihei volunteers to help people who have lost their homes in the Upcountry Fire. He is cleaning up Ross Hart's property. The surf shop where he worked, Jaw Surf in Lahaina burned down.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

This mountainside community in Kula is nestled around the volcano more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It boasts lush flora and fauna, rare species and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

But the rough terrain, with its winding gulches and forests, has made it much harder for firefighters to contain the blaze.

The fire, so far, has destroyed at least 19 homes — and dozens of other structures. Days after it started, firefighting helicopters still circle overhead, making run after run at a fire that has scorched some 700 acres.

The fire, so far, has destroyed at least 19 homes - and dozens of other structures. Days after it started, firefighting helicopters still circle overhead, making run after run at a fire that has scorched some 700 acres.
The fire, so far, has destroyed at least 19 homes - and dozens of other structures. Days after it started, firefighting helicopters still circle overhead, making run after run at a fire that has scorched some 700 acres.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

Ross is now sleeping in a house owned by his church. This entire small community is mourning dead and missing friends in devastated Lahaina while also reeling from its own, less talked about losses.

"We just don't want to get forgotten. People like [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and stuff - we haven't even seem them yet," Ross said.

So just like in parts of West Maui, this community quickly kicked into gear creating its own relief effort... Local resident Niko Sena has been working long days giving away goods at a pop-up roadside tent.

A grassroots center was set up at the Kula Lodge by volunteers and donations were brought in from the community to help people who have lost their homes or are suffering other hardships.
A grassroots center was set up at the Kula Lodge by volunteers and donations were brought in from the community to help people who have lost their homes or are suffering other hardships.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Diapers, food and water are among the supplies available at this makeshift donation center.
Diapers, food and water are among the supplies available at this makeshift donation center.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

"Canned foods, fruit, protein bars, diapers, ya know, feminine hygiene, uh, stuff. "

And water — because — complicating everything, the fire polluted the water supply here – as it did in parts of West Maui. The Kula community has been told not to use the water — for anything — because it likely contains benzine and other dangerous contaminants.

"We've been advised even not to turn the water on without ventilation and to not boil the water or anything because that expels the gasses," said Sena.

Niko Sena, right, hugs a friend who has been helping with the effort.
Niko Sena, right, hugs a friend who has been helping with the effort.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Homes and automobiles were destroyed in the Upcountry Fire.
Homes and automobiles were destroyed in the Upcountry Fire.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

Ahead of possible storms next week, officials say they are considering cutting off power as a precautionary measure. That's something they did not do in Lahaina or in Kula last week.

Meantime the community in Kula says it will continue to rely on itself.

This mountainside community in Kula is nestled around the Haleakala National Park more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It boasts lush flora and fauna, rare species and stunning views of the Pacific. But the rough terrain, with its winding gulches and forests, has made it much harder for firefighters to contain the blaze.
This mountainside community in Kula is nestled around the Haleakala National Park more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It boasts lush flora and fauna, rare species and stunning views of the Pacific. But the rough terrain, with its winding gulches and forests, has made it much harder for firefighters to contain the blaze.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
In upcountry Maui, the Kula fire destroyed numerous area homes.
In upcountry Maui, the Kula fire destroyed numerous area homes.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR

Deanne Fitzmaurice is a Pulitzer Prize winning documentary photographer and visual storyteller based in the San Francisco. She previously worked for The San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years. Follow Deanne on Instagram @deannefitzmaurice.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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