On the Ground in Maui After Devastating, Climate-Fueled Fires

Published Aug 16, 2023


Climate and Energy

One resident speaks about her harrowing escape from the wildfires and what Biden must do to address the climate change that fueled them.

One resident speaks about her harrowing escape from the wildfires and what Biden must do to address the climate change that fueled them.

The fires that ravaged Maui and destroyed the town of Lāhainā are the latest in a series of climate change-related disasters that have rapidly unfolded this summer. 

From extreme heat to super storms, drought to flooding, the impacts of climate change are accelerating. These events impact thousands of people, and every one of those people has an extended network of community also dealing with loss. 

So far, officials have documented 99 lives lost in the Maui fires, the most deadly in modern U.S. history. The death toll is likely to increase, as more people are accounted for. Beyond those tragic losses, many others lost their homes and possessions, and community resources have been destroyed. 

One of my former co-workers, Christina Lizzi, moved to Lāhainā a month before the fires. For the past two and a half years, Christina, a public interest lawyer, has represented the Nā ‘Āikane O Maui Cultural Center, a community hub and important resource for pre-statehood history, records, and culture in the region. Christina lived in an apartment above the Cultural Center. 

I sat down with Christina over Zoom to hear her harrowing story of escape, the impact of the fire on her and the Cultural Center, her hopes for rebuilding, and how the Biden administration must address with urgency the climate crisis. 

Here are some excerpts from Christina’s story, edited for clarity and length.

The Morning of the Fire

I woke up around 4 a.m. to incredibly strong winds. I went into the kitchen and saw everything covered in a layer of dust. I wiped down the kitchen and came back 30 minutes later, and the dust was back. 

I lived in an older apartment with windows that didn’t fully seal, and so when I came back 30 minutes later, the dust was back. We were in the middle of a big dust storm. That’s how the day started. 

At 6 a.m., I got a call from Auntie [Christina refers to U’ilani and Ke’eaumoku Kapu, who run the Cultural Center, as Auntie and Uncle throughout the interview]. She said the back window of my car had been hit with flying debris. There were also pieces of the roof starting to come off. 

But I went about my day as best I could. We lost power early, but I participated in a Maui Planning Commission meeting on my phone for a large part of the day. I had a headache and took a short nap, but woke up when I heard a loud explosion sound.  

There were more pieces flying off of the roof. At that point, I went to look outside and saw billowing smoke not too far away. I was like, ”Holy crap, what’s going on?” I quickly went to find Auntie and Uncle, who were on the other side of the building.

We quickly jumped into their car and left. I was only able to grab my cat and work computer. I’m very glad I didn’t go back for anything else. 

When we pulled out, there was a lot of traffic, as everyone was trying to get out. Fortunately, someone let us onto the road. We first tried to get up one part of a hill to find Uncle and Auntie’s kids, but the road was blocked, and we went back into the traffic. 

We were driving down the road, and we were seeing all the wind damage. It was insane to see — fences, trees, and electric poles all on the ground. We got to one of the other access points and were watching everything burn up. 

We actually watched the Cultural Center [and her apartment] burn — I don’t think any of us wanted to say “That’s definitely it,” but it was obviously right where the Center was burning. 

The Cultural Center and Its Significance

The Center is a living museum perpetuating the culture and history of pre-colonized Hawaii. The community would gather there, especially folks who wanted to learn more about the history that’s not always taught in mainstream schools. 

The Center was a place where people could do genealogy and title research. The Center also helped as a receiving and holding place for iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) that had been disturbed by development, or exposed along shorelines due to erosion, or that needed to be relocated because of climate change. 

The fire completely burned down the Center and lots of old historic maps and other documents burned up along with it. This will make it much more difficult to document how land was illegally taken. 

What Can People Do to Help

Because the Cultural Center is so important to me and the community, I’ve been directing people to send support there. It is an important community hub and the Center is bringing resources to people impacted by the fire.  The Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and donations can be made.

Make a donation via Venmo to @Uilani-Kapu
Or via check made out to Nā ‘Āikane O Maui and mail to
Christina Lizzi, P.O. Box 1595, Makawao, HI 96768

Climate Change and Its Impact on Maui

We have definitely seen an increase in the wildfires out here as our climate is changing, and the whole area is much drier than it used to be. We see climate change, in general, in sea level rise that’s impacting other areas. We’ve got diminishing water resources. 

It just makes the area even drier and there is less water available even to fight fires whenever they’re happening… and things like the intense winds that we’ve never experienced like that before, in combination with fire. And it’s all from contributions of greenhouse gases.

We need to move to a renewable energy economy, but it’s important that renewable projects are appropriately sited and not in places that are fire-prone. We need to shift the economy, but we need to look at impacts on communities while making siting decisions so communities aren’t negatively impacted, which I think we can do. It just takes good planning. 

If You Could Talk With President Biden, What Would You Say?

I would ask that resources be provided to rebuild, but also that we rebuild back in a very different way that’s focused more on the local community, and taking into account all the things that we’re facing like sea-level rise. 

We need to build for climate resilience or we’re just on a sinking ship. And rebuilding should be more culturally appropriate, honoring the place and the community.

Regarding climate change, globally, we’re just in an absolute crisis, so I’d say if we’re in a crisis, we need to act like it… Do the things we need to do and stop talking out of both sides of your mouth. 

Send a message to President Biden today: We need urgent climate action now! End the era of fossil fuels!

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