'The whole town is gone': Former Calgarian on the enduring agony of wildfire-ravaged Lahaina

Roughly 2,700 families remain displaced by the August wildfires in Lahaina and residents are impatient: ‘There’s a fundamental gap here’

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities.

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Canadians have a soft spot for things unfolding in Maui. The old town of Lahaina was a popular attraction for tourists, and now it’s gone. Seeing the devastation is deeply moving; it’s baffling to see how some buildings were demolished while others remain standing and too early to know what will arise from the ashes. The first order of business is getting the roughly 2,700 families still displaced by the August wildfires into transitional homes while Lahaina is being rebuilt.

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Chyna Colorado Ladera, 43, moved from Calgary to Lahaina as a 10-year-old girl and has lived here ever since. After narrowly escaping the flames in August, Chyna and her 17-year-old daughter bounced from town to town across Maui, living with friends in Kahana, then Makawao, then Kihei, then Haiku and on and on it went. Two weeks ago, Chyna moved back into her Lahaina home in a residential subdivision a few blocks south of the iconic Old Lahaina Luau site.

“We didn’t have electricity, don’t know the state of the water … but the minute we could get back here, we came back,” Chyna says. “It’s grounding and I think it’s our responsibility to free up homes if we’re staying somewhere else another family could use.”

Her neighbourhood was inexplicably spared — and she’s grateful to be home — but she worries about the many former residents of Lahaina who lost their homes and continue to shuffle between hotel rooms and Airbnbs provided by Red Cross.

To meet with Chyna at her home in Lahaina, I first have to get past the National Guard. It’s midday; the three young guards, two from Oahu and one from Maui, are sweltering in their dark uniforms, seated on folding chairs under an awning at a barricade they’ve set up on the steaming pavement. Their job is to make sure the only people allowed inside the charred remains of Lahaina town are locals. It’s relatively “safe” — hazardous materials have been cleared from the area and toxic ash has been sprayed with a protective sealant. But still, it’s a disaster zone. Not wanting to be mistaken for a gawker, I stuff my camera deep into the bag I’m carrying.

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Chyna Colorado Ladera.
Former Calgary resident Chyna Colorado Ladera recently moved back to her home in fire-ravaged Lahaina, Hawaii. Photo by Chyna Colorado Ladera

Chyna’s daughter arrives on a shiny new bicycle to retrieve me from the National Guard post. Except for the very large potable water truck parked on the street, you wouldn’t know this neighbourhood was nearly engulfed by wildfires four months ago. Chyna has decorated their home for Christmas, inside and out. Gardening gloves lay near the wide-open front door. A vacuum cleaner leans against the kitchen counter. With the help of volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, she’s managed to make the incongruity of her house in the midst of a disaster zone feel like home.

In the aftermath of most crises of this magnitude — New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or communities along the Gulf of Mexico wiped out by the Deep Water Horizon blowout — FEMA, America’s emergency management agency, typically takes on the job of transitioning displaced households into permanent housing. “Maui County decided to have Red Cross deal with housing instead,” Chyna explains, with a shrug.

So, what’s the plan for housing displaced people? “It’s a great question,” Chyna responds, “we’ve been asking it since day one.”

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“Journalists came in real quick (after the fires) and they came in talking to deeply traumatized people, including myself,” Chyna reports, pauses for a moment, and continues, “The whole town is gone … and we didn’t know if we’d be able to go back.”

The message Chyna and other locals wanted to share with the world was “we need homes.” Instead, many newscasts featured disaster porn, footage of people crying and breaking down, Chyna recalls with unconcealed disgust.

The last thing I want to do is stir up bad memories. Trying to keep our conversation focused on the issue at hand — housing for displaced people — I point to a bill being debated this week by Maui County council. Richard Bissen, the County of Maui mayor, proposes accessing short-term vacation rentals and timeshares using carrots, in the form of tax exemptions, to accelerate the conversion of short-term rentals to long-term use by displaced Lahaina residents. And for property-owners who don’t want to participate in the program? They should expect their property taxes to be increased — substantively — if the mayor’s tone is a guide.

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Wildfire damage in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The August wildfire disaster was “entirely preventable,” Chyna Colorado Ladera asserts. “It was absolutely predictable. We had 2018 to show us that likelihood.” Photo by Chyna Colorado Ladera

Again, Chyna shrugs, then responds: “There’s a fundamental gap here. It’s extremely frustrating because over the years, there’s been over-development, lack of infrastructure, road safety and evacuation planning is poor, and then when the boom in vacation rentals happened, local people voiced concern.”

The August disaster was “entirely preventable,” she asserts. “It was absolutely predictable. We had 2018 to show us that likelihood.”

The 2018 fire in Lahaina didn’t kill anyone, but it scorched 2,100 acres and wiped out 21 homes. “The 2018 fire was the first practice run for me,” Chyna says, and goes on to explain the horror of watching a fire come down the mountain, burn through empty cane fields, and surround the apartment complex she was living in. “There was nothing done after that to prevent this (the 2023 fire) from happening,” she concludes.

I’m keen to talk about what a rebuilt Lahaina can be. Canadians were among the first tourists drawn to attractions like the old town of Lahaina, and invested early to build out Maui’s beach destinations, from Kihei to Kanapaali. Western Canadian companies remain active in Maui — GolfBC, Ledcor, PCL Construction, to name but a few — and have learned, in places like Jasper and Whistler and Banff, that resort destinations need to be designed not just to accommodate tourists, but locals and workers too.

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But Chyna’s not ready for that conversation. “There’s a part of me that can’t think in that way yet,” she says faintly. “The real concern for me in this moment are our roadways and our evacuation plans, especially when you’re encouraging thousands of people to come to West Maui. You saw that road coming down. If one thing happens, if there’s an emergency situation, what’s the evacuation plan? We have one two-lane road.

“There were proposals and plans done, years ago, after the 2018 fires — here’s what can be done and here’s what should be done — and they chose not to act,” Chyna asserts, with growing agitation.

I risk wondering out loud if there’s a best-case scenario that could arise from the calamity. But I already know Chyna’s answer: accountability and action from leaders whose job it is to look after citizens.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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