Clearing toxic debris from the fires is a complex task that makes even getting back to survey destroyed structures a complicated process.

Tama Kaleleiki was sitting in the living room of his temporary apartment in Napili on a recent night, when a car crashed into a nearby utility pole and cut out the lights.

The 61-year-old retiree stepped out of the dark house into a starry night and lit a cigarette, an old vice he’d rekindled in the uncertain days since the deadly Lahaina fire forced him to flee his small, wooden home on Shaw Street. Then a single red firework burst in the sky, a flash that reminded him of the Aug. 8 fires and caused a surge of panic that lasted for hours.

“Home, familiar ground. That’s all I want,” Kaleleiki said as he sat on pink bedsheets in an apartment adorned with somebody else’s framed family photos.

Mike Cicchino and his wife Andreza hold hands with their daughter as they survey what remains of their Lahaina neighborhood. Mike Cicchino said being kept out of town is agonizing for displaced residents like himself who crave a measure of closure. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

A ban on reentry to Lahaina, where 115 people perished in the fire last month, aims to protect people from toxic chemicals dislodged during the disaster. But many displaced families are growing impatient with the police barricades that went up a week after the fire and are preventing them from seeing what remains of their homes and businesses.

Some say laying eyes on their torched property is a critical step toward grieving the brutalities of the firestorm. Others long to comb the wreckage for jewelry, pottery or some other memento that might have survived. 

Then there are residents who want to move back onto their land immediately, even if that means bringing in portable toilets and showers and makeshift dwellings, such as camper vans or shipping containers.

“The urgency of being able to get back to our properties right now is a small cry but it’s going to become a loud roar,” said U’i Kahue, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner who tended a plumeria farm and plant nursery that burned in the fire along with her rental home. “We can’t recover until we can witness what happened and have that closure. Without witnessing what happened to our homes, you just condemn us to being in limbo.” 

After couch-surfing at the homes of friends and family in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Tama Kaleleiki eventually secured a two-bedroom condo donated for his use in Napili but it’s uncertain how long he’ll be allowed to stay. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Gov. Josh Green has said his administration will decide who gets to reenter Lahaina and when, although he underscored that decisions will be made with input from Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders and Maui County police, fire and emergency management officials.

The blaze created massive amounts of soot and dirty water that may contain harmful contaminants, authorities say. Some trees and partial structures still standing are prone to collapse. Wet ash may cause chemical burns and contain cancer-causing materials. Airborne toxins can make it difficult to breathe. 

“We have to be careful enough that we’re not putting anyone into harm’s way but at the same time we’re aware that harm accumulates if we have to delay,” Green said last week at a LahainaTown Action Committee meeting. “I don’t want to sound glib about that. I want to say it is a very difficult balancing act.”

A Phased Plan For Returning

In the coming weeks, supervised home visits will become available for displaced Lahaina residents and business owners whose properties burned, Green announced Friday. Residents will be allowed to return on a rolling basis as hazmat-suited workers make progress in removing toxic materials from the burn area.

A government website launched by the county last week divides the sprawling, miles-wide scar of the fire into dozens of zones and promises regular updates about when and how the reentry process will go.

Mayor Richard Bissen has said a list of residents allowed to reenter the burn zone — a list that’s soon expected to grow — is being curated by county Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita.

Authorities have so far reopened two zones — the Lahaina Gateway shopping center on the north side of Keawe Street and the businesses on the Walgreens property on the street’s south end. The properties are outside of, but surrounded by, the disaster zone. Officials urged caution for those who choose to go there as there’s a risk of exposure to toxic ash carried by the wind.

On Aug. 28 environmental regulators began a cleanup of contaminants from the burning of everyday household items — from paints and pesticides to asbestos roofing and solar panel batteries, which officials say they’re treating as bombs because they’re prone to explode.

Once properties have been cleared of health hazards, a painstaking process that’s expected to finish by the end of the year, officials will seek permission from property owners to remove hazardous debris, including unstable structures prone to collapse. The fire may have burned in excess of 2,000 degrees, officials say, which is hot enough to melt glass and compromise steel.

The state is partnering with FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on debris removal, a task that could take up to year and cost more than a billion dollars. Lahaina property owners alternatively have the right to conduct their own debris removal following strict government protocol.

Some residents will be allowed to return to their properties sooner than others based on how quickly authorities can detoxify them.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen looks on while Mahina Martin chief of communications and public affairs repeats a reporter’s question during a press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. The new interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira was announced. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen says the county will expedite building permits for people who lost their homes in the fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

It’s not yet clear when residents will be allowed to live on their properties again or whether exceptions will be made to county permitting rules that restrict people from assembling makeshift living structures.

At a community meeting last week Bissen said the county will open an Office of Emergency Permitting to help expedite home construction permits for those who lost their homes. The county is short-staffed — there are as many as 700 open positions right now, according to Bissen — and that’s long been a factor in how quickly permits get approved. 

Returning Is A Painful Decision For Many

Mike Cicchino, 37, said he’s too rattled by vivid flashbacks and nightmares to restart a life in Lahaina. He’s hunting for a long-term lease on a home in Kihei or some other town outside of West Maui. But he’s eager to return to his burned-down rental property, just once, to scour the debris for his wedding ring and any other family keepsakes.

He’s seen photographs of the destroyed property. But he thinks seeing it with his own eyes could help alleviate some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder he’s developed over the month since he fled the fire.

“I want to see it and know that it’s actually gone,” said Cicchino, seated on a pool deck of the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, one of 29 Maui hotels that have taken in Lahaina’s evacuees. “In some of the nightmares I have, we’re going back to the house. It’s still there. And then I wake up in this hotel. So I have this weird feeling it could still be there. I really need to see it to have that closure. It’s like I have trouble believing it happened.”

Kukui Keahi, a ninth-generation Lahaina resident and operations manager at Old Lahaina Luau, had lived with two cousins for only a year in a rental home that burned down. But in that short time the house became a gathering place and safe haven for family and friends. An air mattress was a permanent fixture in the living room. 

“I am homesick,” the 33-year-old said. “I want to go home so bad. And home is not Kahana or Napili. It’s Lahaina.”

But she knows a Lahaina homecoming may not be possible for a year or more as government agencies and property owners cleanse and clear and rebuild.

Lahaina resident Tama Kaleleiki’s modest wooden home on Shaw Street survived the blaze, but the fire burned the house across the street and the surrounding neighborhood. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Not everyone is eager to return.

In the days immediately after the fire, Erikka Pilgrim said she longed to go back to her burned-down home to fetch her cast iron skillet, which she surmised had surely survived the heat and flames, along with her mother’s engagement ring. 

Then she considered the hazards of sifting through charred ruins to recover a pan no longer safe for cooking. The improbability of finding a pencil eraser-sized diamond buried in thick heaps of ash. All that toxicity.

“Initially I wanted to go back just to say goodbye but now, I mean, for what?” Pilgrim said. “There’s nothing there.”

For Kaleleiki, the possibility of inhabiting his property some day soon is made all the more plausible by an extraordinary circumstance: the fire left his house on Shaw Street in near-pristine condition, save for a coating of ash on everything he owns.

Tama Kaleleiki retrieved artwork and family photographs from his Shaw Street home last week on a house visit supervised by a FEMA official. The fire melted his washing machine and lifted some ceiling panels but otherwise left his home virtually untouched. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

In Kaleleiki’s telling, the survival of his home is a miracle of God. The corner lot lawn, lush and green with leafy banana and ti plants and a mighty mango tree, is an improbable beacon of hope amidst all the destruction.

And because the house still stands, Kaleleiki is one of a small number of displaced residents who has been allowed back into the area of devastation. Last Monday, a FEMA safety inspector accompanied him on a short, supervised house visit to retrieve some personal items — artwork and heirloom family photographs, a book of ukulele music, dog toys, a suitcase of clothes.

He brought it all back to the two-bedroom Napili condo where he sleeps on a daybed in the living room. He spends his nights there with the front and back doors open wide so he could grab his dogs and quickly run outside if some other disaster were to strike.

He’s grateful for a private place to live temporarily as he tries to reassemble the pieces of his life. But the condo feels foreign, intensifying his longing for home.

“If I could go back today, I would go back today,” Kaleleiki said. “Go home and start cleaning and start living again.”

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

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