The historic structure on Front Street is the last house standing in a neighborhood reduced to rubble.

Before fires ripped through Lahaina, the craftsman-inspired home at 271 Front St. didn’t stand out much in the neighborhood. The nearly 100-year-old structure had been lovingly restored in recent years, but it was one of many charming homes lining the waterfront of one of Hawaii’s most historically important towns. 

Today, the house is unmissable: A red-roofed structure in seemingly pristine condition, surrounded by piles of ash and rubble for blocks in every direction.

“It looks like it was photoshopped in,” homeowner Trip Millikin said of the house, which stands in such contrast to the surrounding ruins that images of the home have gone viral in recent days.

A building appears untouched by the wildfire which destroyed the historic town of Lahania Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, on Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Trip Millikin said he was shocked and overcome by feelings of guilt when he found out his home had survived the fire almost entirely unscathed. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Millikin has spent much of the last week — in between anxious calls to check up on friends and neighbors — puzzling over why his house was somehow spared.

Maybe it was just luck. Maybe the wind shifted at just the right moment. Or maybe it was a series of serendipitous choices made during a recent home renovation that helped prevent flying pieces of burning wood and debris from doing little more than scorching small patches of his yard and bubbling the paint on one wall. 

Experts say it was likely a little bit of all the above, but that one element of the home’s recent renovation is actually the most affordable and important thing people can do to try and protect their homes.

A Painstaking Renovation

Millikin and his wife, Dora Millikin, fell in love with the Front Street house several years ago, although it was vacant and had fallen into a state of disrepair.

The home, known as the Pioneer Mill Co./Lahaina Ice Co. Bookkeeper’s House, is believed to have been moved to Front Street in 1925 from a nearby plantation. For decades, it was used to house management-level employees.

The Millikins, who started living in Lahaina more than a decade ago, used to bicycle by the house and talk about what it would take to fix the sagging roof, the rotting lanai, the peeling paint.

“The house was an absolute nightmare, but you could see the bones of it,” Millikin said.

The Front Street home had been vacant and on the market for several years when Trip Millikin and his wife bought it and embarked on an extensive restoration project. (Courtesy: Trip Millikin/2023)

Millikin and his wife bought the property in 2021, working with the county on a historic preservation plan before embarking on a nearly two-year renovation project. They did much of the work themselves, along with a local carpenter and the help of neighbors.

The effort was a source of neighborhood pride, Millikin said, with people walking by and frequently talking to the couple as they hand glazed the 500 window panes in the structure, painstakingly repaired the termite damage, dug out the mushrooms growing in the downstairs ohana unit.

The house is what’s known as a craftsman-inspired “plantation vernacular” dwelling, a style of homes constructed mostly by sugar and pineapple plantation companies in the early 20th century.

This home, overseen by a Native Hawaiian carpenter who headed most construction projects for the Pioneer Mill Co., was built from California redwood, Millikin said, which has some natural fire-resistant properties. But so was the historic house next door, which burned completely in the Aug. 8 fire.

Dora Millikin glazing some of the 500 window panes in the home at 271 Front St. (Courtesy:Trip Millikin/2023)

During renovations, Millikin installed a commercial-grade steel roof, something that definitely would have provided better protection from flying embers than shingles. At first, Millikin thought this might have made the biggest difference in why his home was spared.

But Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Wood Institute for the Environment, said it was likely the Millikins’ decision to dig out the existing landscaping directly surrounding the house and replace it with river stones that made the biggest difference.

“What folks in the wildfire business call the zone zero or the ember ignition zone, is kind of a key factor in whether homes do or do not burn down,” Wara said.

Having nothing combustible in the 5 feet directly around a house is enormously important.

Millikin said the decision to install river stones for about a meter around the house was not actually aimed at fire prevention. He wanted to prevent runoff from landscaping from creating water and termite damage. But it may have saved his home.

Regulations in California have typically focused on a 30-foot perimeter around homes known as “Zone A” in firefighting. But Wara said that research on the thousands of homes that have burned in California in recent years has shown that it’s really what’s installed in the immediate few feet of a home that makes the biggest difference.

In fires like the one in Lahaina, there are enormous amounts of flaming embers that are flying through the air. And if there’s something next to the house that is combustible — a wood fence, a bush, dry grass — that’s often what will ignite the structure, Wara said.

In the instance of the Front Street house, there was also a considerable amount of luck involved, he said. Because even the most well-prepared house can catch fire when the homes next to it are burning.

“Basically, the houses start catching each other on fire,” Wara said, which is why encouraging homeowners to remove landscaping and install rocks or granite walkways around homes is so important. “If enough of the homes have that kind of preparation then that chain reaction doesn’t get started.”

A Struggle To Make Use Of Luck

Millikin, who was on a trip to Massachusetts during the Lahaina fire, said the last he heard from his immediate neighbor on Aug. 8 was that the whole neighborhood was burning and his home was unlikely to make it.

He went to bed feeling physically ill out of fear for the fate of his friends, his neighborhood, and his home.

In the morning, a friend called and sent them a picture from a helicopter flyover of Lahaina. Every structure had been destroyed in the area. But there, in the midst of the destruction, was the seemingly untouched red roof of Millikin’s home.

Millikin said he and his wife were overcome with emotion.

“We started crying,” he said. “I felt guilty. We still feel guilty.”

A building appears untouched by the wildfire which destroyed the historic town of Lahania Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, on Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Trip and Dora Millikin’s home is the only structure standing for blocks in every direction. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Millikin said he has friends who have lost homes in California in recent years, and when he’s seen stories about other “miracle houses” left standing in the aftermath of destructive fires, he’s always thought: “Boy, I’m glad I don’t own that one. I wouldn’t want that. I would feel guilty.”

Now, Millikin said, “that’s our house.”

Millikin is hoping to channel his luck — and his feelings of guilt — into community action. He’s been told by neighbors that it’s best to stay put outside of Lahaina while he can so as not to take up much-needed resources for other survivors.

But when he and his wife are able to go back, he’s hoping to set up his home as some sort of a community hub for people trying to rebuild theirs.

“Let’s rebuild this together,” he said. “This house will become a base for all of us. Let’s use it.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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