A State Senator Describes The Day Lahaina Burned: ‘I’ll Never Forget That As Long As I Live’ - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Angus McKelvey was one of the thousands who lost their homes in the deadly fire. He’s been working ever since to help other survivors.

State Sen. Angus McKelvey left his Lahaina condo on the morning of Aug. 8, never to return. In the three-plus weeks since a windswept fire destroyed his hometown, he has struggled to help his fellow displaced constituents, some of whom lost loved ones. 

In an interview that was edited for length and clarity, McKelvey recounts his own harrowing experiences and the difficult road ahead for West Maui.

Senator, describe your experience on Aug. 8, what happened to you personally that day.

The power actually went out in the early morning. I was supposed to go to Honolulu to my office and I heard the power lines were down. I didn’t want to get caught on the other side of the island trying to come back later because of power lines down on the highway so I canceled my trip. And then I went by my brother’s place (on the northern section of Front Street), where his partner was (the brother was off-island). They had no power. Nobody had any.

So she and I went down to their boat. It was a floating survival shelter — and the irony is it got lost in the fire, too. But she’s like, let’s head down there. We can obviously get a generator, recharge our phones, make some coffee, figure out what’s going on with the wind and everything. The wind the entire time is literally like hurricane force gusts. It was just so unearthly.

Then it’s getting toward the middle of the day, and I’m like, okay, let me see if there’s power back and see if the bank is open. So I get my car and I’m running around and then I stop off at their place — she’s still down at the boat and I’m making phone calls and stuff. And now I start to see smoke above Lahaina, this is maybe around 3. And I’m like, ‘Oh, great, here we go again, the power lines in the brush.” But okay, it looks like at first glance it’s way up there. It’s white smoke.

And so I go about doing stuff around their place, get some work done, make some phone calls. The smoke starts to turn black.

The sky darkens as windswept flames close in on Lahaina on Aug. 8. (Courtesy: Angus McKelvey)

But the whole time you’re thinking, “OK, it’s gotten a little worse and worse, but if it gets real bad, there’s going to be some kind of alert or something.” And so I, like a lot of other people, just kept going on.

Then I start hearing pop, pop, pop, pop, explosions. It sounded to me like cars were blowing up with gasoline in them or hot water heaters or something. Literally, it was Ukraine. I mean, like mortar fire. It started getting blacker and blacker and bigger and bigger.

The next thing you know, it’s coming down the hill full-tilt burning the Kahoma Village homes. And now it was starting to engulf the area behind the affordable housing apartments that just recently got completed and opened up.

Now the fire is fully raging. Everybody in this little neighborhood’s coming out looking at the sky and you see like ash and stuff starting to come down everywhere and pieces of what was probably roofing. It’s an urban fire. You have these flaming embers that are shooting in the wind that is blasting like 70 miles an hour or so. It’s carrying all of this stuff ahead of the fire and dropping it on homes and trees.

Were people starting to flee at this point?

Yeah, some people are starting to flee. The smoke started getting worse. Some people are kind of like, “OK, what if it is as bad as it looks, as close as it looks? But, if it gets worse or bad, there will be a siren. There’ll be an alert on my phone.” And for some people who’ve been through this before, they were like, “The police will come through saying evacuate.” People kind of froze. And then there’s others who are like, “It’s not going to be that bad. The house is new. We’re going to go ahead and just kind of shelter in place.”

Then all of a sudden it starts to get really bad, the smoke and everything. And now I can see my place where I live in a condominium building is fully on fire. The whole area is raging. And I look at this monkey pod tree there, it was completely engulfed in flames and then something flammable next to it blew up, and it was a huge fireball.

Destroyed cars in Lahaina the day after the Aug. 8 conflagration. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

So I grabbed their dog, tried to grab the cat, couldn’t find it, grabbed my stuff and threw it in the car and got out. This time, Front Street now was flooded with people trying to flee. But on this section of the street people self-organized to take over both sides of the street to go one-way out (to the north). People were letting other people go first and such.

I’m sure behind them (farther south on Front Street), it was absolute pandemonium because it was absolutely black. Huge black smoke just roaring.

The air is heating up like if you put your face in front of an oven.

I shoot across the street to Mala Boat Ramp because the streets are choked and I want to assess it and get a better view. And there was a guy who has a boatyard there, and we’re sitting there just watching.

Now the sky is pitch black. More people are streaming out. People are running, they’re pushing, their cars are jostling. All of a sudden embers that started coming down with the wind lit a palm tree on fire and then the homes behind it. The air is heating up like if you put your face in front of an oven when you open it.

So at that point you get back in the car with your brother’s dog, but you don’t leave town?

I took a position just by the rear of Lahaina Cannery Mall to let everybody else go. One guy had only a wheelchair. They were trying to stream out of the area, so I was like, okay, let them go.

I’m watching. And at that point you can see the flames fully engulfing everything. But it’s pushing past my brother’s place and I’m thinking it might be safe to go back. I’ve lost communications with everybody, so I couldn’t communicate with his partner. I didn’t know what she was doing.

There’s Hawaii, the postcard we all knew on August 7, and then there’s this.

I go inside, get the dog some food. Try to find the cat. Grab a couple of things of water. And I’m like, okay, it looks like things might be mellowing out. And I opened up the door and the front of the apartment was fully on fire. It looks like it’s three doors down and just huge pulsating balls of fire. And I hear the wind doing this sucking sound. I’ll never forget that as long as I live because of the flames roaring and that sound. It was, I don’t know, it sounded like tortured screams almost. Oh my God.

And so I just grab a couple of things, tried the cat one last time and got in the car, took off, went back to behind the Cannery Mall. I just couldn’t believe it. So I’m sitting there, it’s getting dark. A tree comes down on a car. We retreat to the Safeway. And at that point, what I later assumed to be the propane tank at the Texaco station blew up.

By the evening of Aug. 8 the Lahaina waterfront was in flames. (Hawaii News Now)

The firetrucks started making this wall. I see them do that. And I’m thinking to myself, you know, they might be forming a wall to give everything up between them and the fire, and I’m between them and the fire. So then I barreled out and made it through Front Street.

The fire was raging through the Wahikuli neighborhood. I come up to where the road joins the highway and you could see people just pouring out with kids, families, bicycles, shopping carts. And I can hear the wind sucking even when I left.

I got on the highway and fled up north to the area where most people relocated and luckily was able to reunite the dog with my brother’s partner.

I drove all the way up north to the Honokowai area, kind of camped out in my car. There were a lot of other people doing the same.

What did the day after bring?

The next morning I immediately went to the Kapalua Airport because we had no communication. There was one shred of (cellular) signal at the airport and everybody gathered around there like a huge refugee camp. People and pilots are wanting to know how they can get supplies and everything. And I’m just trying to basically say, “Okay, let’s help get this stuff in.” At that time, it was a restricted airspace because of the fire. Luckily, the Kahului Airport guy went ahead and removed it so they could get private planes to bring in relief supplies and such.

I asked one of the helicopter pilots who was dropping off supplies if I could get a quick look from above at the damage. They’re like, of course, because you’re our only elected government guy on the ground.

Lahaina from the air the morning after the Aug. 8 fire. (Courtesy: Angus McKelvey)

It was just smoke, flames pouring everywhere you could see. We crossed over the harbor. One of the ferries was like a metal structure all melted, like one of those things of clay, sitting in the channel. All the boats in that slip burned from the top down, sank in place. So you fly over, you can see the silhouettes of all of them on the bottom of the water.

This one affordable housing complex had just huge fireballs pouring out of it. I mean, it was surreal. It was beyond surreal. I felt like I’ve been teleported. Even now to this day, people in Honolulu come over to see it and, it’s like, there’s Hawaii, the postcard we all knew on August 7, and then there’s this.

(Back at the airport) People are texting me with what little service I can get, my Senate colleagues, so I’m trying to text them information to let them know this is a thousand times worse than you’re seeing on TV right now.

The first thing I was banging on right away is we have no communications, we have no comms. And nobody knows what’s going on. We are truly on our own. And that’s when everybody started mobilizing. It was the citizens, you know, rallying on their own just to go ahead and do it. We’re hearing nothing from the county at that time for sure, the feds.

We’re trying to communicate out. We’re getting all of these things and we’re trying to arrange for insulin. Sen. (Tim) Richards arranged for a volunteer pilot from the Big Island to bring insulin over.

I’m like, okay, I’ve got to stay here, because if nothing else at this point with everything breaking down, people are volunteers. A disaster command and control structure does not include, quote unquote, elected officials. But the reality is that we’re the ones more often than not on the ground with everybody else from the disaster. And we’re the ones who people look at and go, “you’re government.”

President Biden arrives at Kapalua Airport on Maui, Monday.
President Biden arrives at Kapalua Airport on Aug. 21 after a helicopter flight over Lahaina. Sen. Angus McKelvey said the tiny airport can play a key role in any emergency that hinders access to and from West Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Did the fire ultimately burn your brother’s place that you were in and out of that day?

No. There was a good chunk of homes around where they were that did not burn. But at the same time the infrastructure all around is completely blasted, there’s no water, there’s no electrical. They probably could restore it. There are pockets of buildings that didn’t burn because of the way the fire jumped around.

You were initially critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency response, saying on national TV that basically they were doing it the first few days from off-island. Why was that and how do you feel about FEMA at this point?

They’ve come around a lot since then.

I’m glad I did it, because it did serve the purpose, which was to get them out of Honolulu first and have them here, have them working with the state agencies and others next to each other, so it’s a one-stop shop. I’d like to hopefully think that it was a little bit of the pebble that started the avalanche of a big federal response.

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Meanwhile, the businesses that were at ground zero need immediate cash rescue. If they have that, they could possibly hold on to some of their key workers. But if they don’t, they go under and the key workers leave and they probably won’t come back.

Seriously, though, the biggest one of all right now, the nuclear bomb, is the mortgage/rental thing. People are getting notices from their landlords saying, “I want to continue to rent, but I have a mortgage to pay.” And there’s been no mortgage relief coming from anywhere. And so what happens if all these people get foreclosed on? Who’s going to buy those notes?

This is the important stuff that the powers that be need to be putting their resources behind. You can see it coming whether you like it or not. And so it’s like, we’re dragging ourselves out of the first calamity and now come the other ones.

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

Read this next:

The Maui Fires In Photos: Public Voices And The Local Economy

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

It's understandable, and appropriate, to have gratitude for Sen. McKelvey's efforts after the fire and, at the same time, recognize that he and many others were empowered to have had the risks mitigated or eradicated long before it came down to a horrific, deadly and devastating wildfire. The risks were known, and there'd been several prior fires which demonstrated the legitimacy of those risks.I feel for the trauma he, and so many others, went through yet if we want to avoid a repeat the public must find their balance between the part of "aloha" which silences people, and accountability.Every human makes mistakes, and graciousness toward that same mistake the 1st or 2nd time is humane; beyond that it's enabling continuation of the problem.

Naauao · 3 weeks ago

I’m so sorry that Senator McKelvey and everyone affected by the Lahaina inferno had to experience the horror and devastation that they did. Lives could have been saved if Mayor Bissen and his emergency management team were proactive and took the brush fires seriously from the get go. People could sense the danger as they waited on Mayor Bissen and his team for leadership and guidance that never came. Unfortunately, 115 people perished on that fateful day. Thank God Senator McKelvey and many of the residents were able to keep their wits about them and band together to help others navigate that harrowing day. They stepped up and emerged as true leaders. Not only stopping there, but doing what they could to get an aerial view of the devastation as they initiated getting necessary supplies at the start of the aftermath. Mayor Bissen and his team talk about transparency, but deny, avoid, and remain silent biding time while they spin a story. My heart aches for all of the innocent people who lost their lives, loved ones, everything. My thoughts and prayers remain with you.

truly_concerned · 3 weeks ago

Was the cat found?

hapa_boy · 3 weeks ago

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