Based on a zone and pass system, the county expects to start allowing Lahaina residents to return to the disaster area starting on Sept. 25.

Maui County officials are preparing to allow property owners and tenants who lost homes in the Aug. 8 blaze to re-enter the burn zone later this month.

Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said at a press conference on Thursday that residents should be able to apply for passes starting on Sept. 22. Passes will grant them access to the disaster area, initially on supervised visits to begin Sept. 25.

Individuals with passes will be accompanied by teams of volunteers and county employees who will escort them to their property so they can search for personal belongings that may have survived the massive inferno, which killed at least 115 people. The purpose is also to let people grieve and seek closure.

Two people stand near a destroyed structure in Lahaina two days after a massive wildfire devastated much of the town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Oliveira said it’s likely going to be very emotionally difficult for survivors to see what, if anything, remains of their homes.

“We’ll have health care workers on site. We will also have mental health professionals on site,” Oliveira said. “I just cannot stress enough the importance of supporting people as they go through this experience.”

Each passholder will be granted two supervised visits. After that, they can re-enter the area as often as they like, he said.

Supervised visits will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week once they start.

Access will be based on zones that cover parts of Lahaina cleared of hazardous material by teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As of Wednesday, the EPA had cleared 515 of 1,557 parcels in the impact zone, said Michael Brogan by email on Wednesday.

The county will provide residents entering the burn zone with N95 masks, Tyvek protective coveralls and booties. They will be advised of the toxic nature of the ash and the importance of keeping their masks and other protective gear on at all times. Guidance will be provided on how to gently sort through rubble to lower the chance of toxins becoming airborne, Oliveira said.

Interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira speaks during a Maui County press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. Oliveira was named to the interim position today. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Darryl Oliveira, a former Big Island fire chief, is serving as interim administrator for the Maui Emergency Management Agency. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Pregnant women, children, people with respiratory illnesses or other vulnerable individuals should stay away.

Oliveira expects to announce the zones on Monday. The county will use property and tax records to determine who lives where and start notifying residents soon thereafter. After the zones are announced and passes obtained, residents can contact Oliveira’s agency to schedule re-entry visits.

More details are expected to be announced early next week. Information will be provided on the county’s various platforms including social media and the website, he said.

Written information will be distributed at relief stations, recovery hubs and other locations that are assisting the thousands of survivors, including more than 7,000 people who are temporarily sheltering in dozens of hotels and airbnbs, Oliveira said.

While many Lahaina survivors are anxious to visit their property, Oliveira cautioned that some buildings may not be entered because they’re structurally unsound. He also said property boundaries in many cases no longer exist.

The fire’s devastation is evident just below the Lahaina Bypass. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

People entering the burn zone on supervised visits will be allowed to bring faith-based counselors, and even insurance adjusters with them, provided they make arrangements with the county ahead of time.

As resident visits take place, EPA teams will continue to remove hazardous materials in other parts of Lahaina, items like propane tanks, batteries, paints, pesticides, fertilizers, and limited amounts of asbestos, EPA’s Brogan said.

This work is phase one of the federal response. Phase two, consisting of ash and debris removal, will be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. 

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