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“Nobody was Ready for This”: Witnessing Lahaina’s Wildfires

4 mins read

photo and video credits to Landon Picard

“The worst day of my life was on August 9,” said senior Landon Picard. 

Hours before smoke and flames engulfed the town, Picard was sleeping at home in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. The Picards travel to Lahaina every year and lived there full-time from 2019 to 2022. Picard’s father lived in Oahu for 15 years, and their entire family remains close to the islands. “Lahaina means the world to me,” Picard said. “I love it like it’s my brother.”

It was 3 p.m. “I was taking a nap. My mom and dad were up because of the hurricane, and the winds were already hitting the house,” Picard said.

When his mother shook him awake, Picard assumed it was just a brush fire. “Those are super common in Lahaina,” he said. “I wasn’t taking it seriously until the smoke started coming near our house. It was just engulfing everything.”

The Picards decided to evacuate immediately. His younger sister, mother, and father piled only necessities—food, clothes, and five bottles of water—into their car. 

“We didn’t know at the time that our house was going to be gone,” Picard said. 

The Picards had not received any warning of the fire—no text messages, sirens, or alerts. Only the smell of smoke and the sight of anxious neighbors signaled residents to evacuate. “We were in the dark,” Picard said. “A lot of people died because they didn’t know. When they found out, they didn’t have that sense of urgency because no one expected Lahaina to burn down—it’s been here for centuries.”

“Nobody was ready for this,” Picard said. “A hurricane and a fire at the same time. It’s just unbelievable, right?”

When the Picards left their home, the normal route was blocked—too many families were trying to escape the chaos. Picard suggested taking a lesser-known route with no traffic. “It was a dirt path behind the highway. You just go straight for about two miles, and you’re in the next city—Kaanapali.”

“Lahaina was like home. It was an escape from the city and its commotion. It was a place of true freedom,” he said. “There, I just felt happy.” Now, as they drove away from their home, Picard felt strangely stoic. “I didn’t really know what to feel–I was just really concerned for my family’s safety and I was in fight or flight for a good two hours.”

As power lines crashed to the ground, the Picards sought refuge and parked in a local Westin hotel parking lot, deciding to sleep in their car for the night. Dozens of families joined them, eyes open, anxious. 

By now, it was 11 p.m. Eight hours had passed, but the sky hadn’t changed from the smog. “It looked like the sun was rising,” Picard said.

When Picard and his father first tried to venture back to Lahaina, it was impossible. “There was so much smoke in the air and the sky was so orange,” Picard said. “The more we walked, the more we were afraid the fire was going to catch up to us.”

They tried again at 5 a.m. When they arrived, no one was there except for two police cars.

Lahaina itself had transformed completely. Houses disintegrated into grey remains and warped, melted metal, still emitting reddish-orange smoke. And the odor: “It wasn’t like your normal burning smell,” Picard said. “It smelled of dead people and animals––the oil, and propane in the air. The buildings were 100 years old, so it smelled like old wood.”

Some didn’t make it. “I knew there were dead people in the cars,” he said.

“It was like looking at a war zone,” Picard said. “It was horrifying, scary, traumatic—I was stressing out and I was confused. Sometimes I would just stand there for a few minutes and take in the scene.”

“This is something that you would see on the news,” he said. “It’s something that you would never expect to happen to you, but then it does. Seeing that was really hard for me because I love this place so much. I’ve been coming here since I was little and lived here and spent a lot of my life in Lahaina.”

115 individuals are confirmed to be dead, but Picard believes that US news coverage is lacking, especially concerning missing individuals. A week ago, the FBI estimated more than 1,000 to be missing. Now, it is estimated that at least 385 people are missing.

“The government isn’t really helping Lahaina as much as they should be,” he added. “They’re supporting us with food and a check of $700 per person, which really doesn’t even help with anything. It’s a joke. There’s no relief to that.”

“But I’m really happy because GoFundMe and other support systems have been working, and some people have been able to receive funds to begin to rebuild their homes,” Picard said. Community organizing within Hawaii and other online fundraisers have generated massive amounts of money for citizens. GoFundMe estimates donations from over a quarter of a million people with over $30 million dollars in contributions. 

When Landon walked back for the first time, he found Lahaina’s Banyan Tree. While everything around it had crumbled and burned, the tree was set to survive. “I was really looking forward to seeing it because that tree is the heart of Lahaina,” Picard said. “There’s a lot of magic to it in the air, and the atmosphere would be completely different if it wasn’t there anymore.”

Picard flew back to the States by himself a few days later. “It was really tough for me to leave because I felt obligated to stay, but my parents wanted me to go to school. I was upset––really upset and scared and confused,” he said, adding,  “I don’t want this to hold me down for the rest of my life. I’m just grateful that I got to spend so much time there before the fire because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Celine Chien is a junior in her second year at the Chronicle. She is a Design Lead for the Mark, a copy editor, and reports on detracking and community news. Celine is on M-A's debate team, Leadership-ASB, and loves to cook and spend time with her family.

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