The opening of the first zone for reentry marked the start of the next phase in the recovery.

Sixteen Lahaina families returned home to Kaniau Road Monday, some for the first time since the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century reduced most of their historic town to a field of black char.

It was a grim, greatly anticipated moment for residents of the first street to open for government-organized property visits since authorities blocked off access to the town where at least 97 people died.

“This is something they’ve all been waiting anxiously for,” said Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency. “Some have had moments where I observed them from a distance praying. Others have basically gone right onto the property looking for things.”

Officials opened a 25-parcel zone along Kaniau Road in Lahaina on Monday for residents to return to their homes. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Officials opened a 25-parcel zone along Kaniau Road in Lahaina on Monday for residents to return to their homes. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The subdued crawl of vehicles filled with homesick families Monday morning marked a turning point in Lahaina’s slow recovery. Volunteers dressed in white protective coveralls received the Kaniau Road residents, offering emotional support or help scouring the toxic ash for keepsakes.

The county plans to announce the next set of zones that will open to homeowners and residents for supervised visits by the end of the week, Oliveira said.

The county has divided the sprawling, miles-wide scar of the Aug. 8 fire into dozens of zones with a plan to reopen them in phases to the people who lived and worked there.

The 25-parcel Kaniau Road led the reentry program because it’s the first to be cleared of hazards, such as unstable structures prone to collapse and torched solar panels and batteries, which officials say they’re treating as unexploded bombs.

For six weeks officials have tried to keep people out of the burned landscape, first to facilitate a sorrowful search for human remains and then to allow hazmat experts to address the buildup of chemical contaminants unleashed by the fire. 

Map of Maui County Lahaina disaster area.
The county opened a 25-parcel zone along Kaniau Road on Monday in Lahaina, the first area to be officially opened for reentry to residents since the Aug. 8 fires. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

But many people who survived the inferno have said the forced exile has prolonged their family’s grief.

About a half dozen homes on Kaniau Road are still standing. Chuck Hogan’s corner lot house is one of them. 

Despite not having electricity or running water, the contractor has continued living in the house since the day after the fire. The street’s lone occupant keeps company with his dog Daisy and a macaw named I’ilani. The bird belongs to a neighbor who’s staying in a FEMA-funded hotel room that doesn’t allow large, exotic animals.

“I’m hoping to have power by Christmas,” said Hogan, who despite the solemn circumstances said he found comfort Monday in seeing the abandoned road repopulated. “The fact that I don’t have electric or water really doesn’t bother me so much because I got someplace to go back to. I’m really lucky compared to my neighbors.”

Chuck Hogan evacuated Kaniau Road with the rest of his neighbors on Aug. 8. But he returned to his home that survived the fire and has since been the street’s lone inhabitant. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Residents who opt to return to their property in the burn zone can access two days of supported visits with portable toilets, hand-washing stations, mental health and medical care, masks and gloves, language assistance and shade from the sun.

What’s unique about the Lahaina fire is that residents had no advance warning to evacuate, said Todd Taylor, program manager of U.S. Disaster Relief for the evangelical group Samaritan’s Purse

“To see a fire this large move this quick, it is something we’ve not seen before,” said Taylor, who helped residents in the aftermath of California’s Camp and Dixie fires. “People didn’t have the time to gather their personal belongings, to even think about it. It was, ‘Get out and run for your life!’”

Todd Taylor, project manager of U.S. Disaster Relief for Samaritan’s Purse, discussed the evangelical group’s response to the Lahaina fire at the reentry point for residents who lived on Kaniau Road. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

This has made the excavated treasures all the more precious for residents who’ve chosen to sift through the toxic ash with a wire screen and a garden trowel.

Residents whose homes burned in Kula have recovered an assortment of keepsakes: rings, melted necklaces, military medals, an earthenware mortar and pestle, pottery and a rare coin collection, according to Taylor, who had 40 volunteers on Kaniau Road Monday to help residents sort through the rubble.

A retired fire chief retrieved his old fire badge. One resident discovered a family heirloom — a Japanese tea set in pristine condition, he said.

Kaniau Road once had 25 single-family homes, some with smaller ohana units tucked behind the main house. Filipino families dominated the neighborhood, some living with extended relatives to cut the cost of rent. 

The quarter-mile road is a straight shot from Honoapiilani Highway to a warped, dead-end guardrail with a vista of the rugged West Maui mountains vaulting above the neighborhood. It intersects an old sugar-haul railroad constructed before the island’s once seemingly indomitable plantation economy gradually went stagnant.

Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said the county would announce more zone reopenings by the end of the week. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

From its starting point at sea level near the snorkeling spot at Wahikuli Wayside Park, the road rises so that each home is marginally elevated above the last, democratizing the blue ocean view. 

Part of the Wahikuli subdivision, the homes were built in the 1970s, some with landlords who charged rents that resort shuttle drivers and spa receptionists like Randy and Marilou Dadez could afford.

For the Dadezes and their four kids, the neighborhood’s nucleus was a beige, two-bedroom ohana unit with a basketball hoop and sprawling areca palms. The couple had paid $2,000 a month for it, utilities included. 

Most of the Dadez family was sound asleep when the fire started raging around the house. The heat woke them up and sent them in a frenzied rush to safety. Three days later, they returned to their rental home to see what remained. 

“You ever heard of this thing called ghost feeling?” said Randy Dadez, a fourth-generation Lahaina resident. “When you lose a finger or your hand, it feels like it’s still there. That’s what it felt like. Until we could go back and see for ourselves, it felt like the house was going to be there. We had to see it ourselves for the reality to kick in.”

Kaniau Road resident Randy Dadez said the family’s escape from the fire, and their emotional return to their torched rental property days later, has brought on anxiety and anguish. The family did not plan to participate in a government-supervised revisit because it would be too painful to return again, he said. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The rental house was supposed to last until Randy Dadez could cobble together the funds to rebuild the aging home he grew up in down the road. It burned before the family had made it a year.

Authorities guarding the road’s entry point let the Dadez family into the neighborhood on Aug. 11 to scour the ruins of their home for photo albums, jewelry and their pet fish Bubbles. But there was nothing to recover, only ash and twisted metal.

“I wish I didn’t see it because it hurts,” Marilou Dadez said.

Marilou, Kobe and Randy Dadez spend a Sunday morning in their hotel room at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea. The hotel is filled with donations, much of it food they can’t cook in their hotel room. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

While viewing the wreckage of their home provided the family some closure, Marilou Dadez said it probably also compounded her children’s trauma.

At school last week, the couple’s 9-year-old son Kobe burst into a fit of anxiety, calling out for Mom and Dad. Their 12-year-old daughter Samara skipped lunch and hid in the bathroom during her first week of classes.

Although the government is now offering assistance, the couple said they won’t return to Kaniau Road.

“If you told me I could go back and dig up the photo albums, the stuff that really matters, then I would go,” Randy Dadez said. “But it’s gone. There’s nothing to go back for.”

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

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