We are staffing up on Maui and creating a permanent bureau that will remain deeply committed to the community and all it faces going forward.

There’s arguably no more important story in Hawaii right now than the deadly wildfires that raced through Lahaina and scorched Upcountry Maui nearly two months ago. It’s going to be that way for a long time.

Since Aug. 8, Civil Beat has published more than 230 stories, editorials and Community Voices that have examined not only what happened but why, and the disastrous implications not just for Maui but for our entire state.

And we’ve only just begun.

This seems like a good time to talk about why we’re committing a good share of our resources to covering Maui, and what you can expect as we go forward.

Civil Beat journalists got a look at the destruction in Lahaina the day after fire raced through the historic town, pushed along by hurricane-fueled strong winds. Abandoned and burned out vehicles lined Front Street. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

We believe that what happened on Maui — the terrible loss of life, the heartbreaking destruction of nearly an entire community, the devastation of one of the most culturally significant places in Hawaii — is more than enough to warrant a considerable reporting effort.

But it goes well beyond that. The story of Maui didn’t begin or end on Aug. 8.

As journalists, it is our kuleana to look more closely at the circumstances that allowed life in Hawaii to change so drastically for so many people in such a short time. That means looking at past decisions, asking uncomfortable questions of people in positions of power — from the Legislature to the governor’s office to the County of Maui — and insisting on answers.

The county in particular already has circled the wagons and is refusing numerous requests for public records containing information that would give needed insight into what happened on Aug. 8. We are settling in for a long fight and we intend to keep readers informed of resistance to the public’s right to know at all levels. Accountability and transparency are more crucial than ever and even small town government leaders who are clearly not used to scrutiny need to embrace a new openness.

As importantly, we want to be there for the community as it recovers and decides when and how to rebuild. The process has already begun as officials steer an effort to restart the stunned economy while literally cleaning up vast areas that were reduced to ash and trying to figure out how to allow residents and property owners to take their lives back. Already some people are maneuvering to take advantage of the situation by trying to manipulate it for their own benefit. We can serve an important watchdog role here too, making sure all voices are heard, not just the loudest or most politically savvy.

To that end, we’ve already launched “The Lives We Lost,” a project spearheaded by Projects Editor Jessica Terrell that aims to tell the story of every person who died in Lahaina that day. We’ll soon be rolling out another ongoing special report, “The Long Road Home,” that will intimately follow a number of survivors over the next year or more as they rebuild their lives, their homes and their businesses.

Civil Beat staff met with dozens of community members at a pop-up newsroom at the Makawao Public Library last week. (Ben Nishimoto/Civil Beat/2023)

We are doing many new things to carry out our coverage plans. First, we are setting up a full bureau on Maui. For two years, we’ve had a single full-time reporter based on the island. Now, we’ve leased a house in Kahului for the long term that will be headquarters to several staff members.

Deputy Editor Nathan Eagle will lead a reporting team of at least three reporters and a photographer. Brittany Lyte, our Kauai reporter, and Paula Dobbyn, our Big Island writer, have been reassigned to full-time Maui coverage. Marina Riker, who has been capably covering Maui for us, is taking an extended leave of absence to deal with family issues and the loss of her own home in the Kula fire, and we plan to hire another full-time permanent Maui reporter in the meantime to make sure we have a strong presence, even after Marina returns.

Our Honolulu-based reporters will continue rotating in and out of Maui, too, pursuing their investigative and explanatory ideas. We’re even sending our company van, The Wavemaker, over to Maui for the reporters to use. It’s also a visible sign — bright orange, to be exact — that we are serious and staying.

We want to hear from the community, too, about your ideas for coverage. What are we missing, what else can we be doing that is helpful to survivors or adds to a wider understanding of what we can learn from this tragedy. Last week, we had a solid turnout at our pop-up newsroom in Makawao and we are scheduling what we hope will be weekly pop-ups throughout Maui for the next couple months at least.

We’re organizing our ongoing coverage and engagement efforts on a new landing page, Maui Fires, that you can find at the top of our homepage. It’s still very much a work in progress, and we’ll be adding new sections as we roll out new reporting projects and get our library of photos and videos a bit better organized into galleries, among other things.

Our journalists documented the aftermath of the Lahaina fires. The images are important to help understand the depth of the tragedy but some of them stick with you. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

Civil Beat had two reporting teams on the ground in West Maui the day after the fires. We were among the first journalists to witness firsthand the destruction in Lahaina and hear the stories of shocked residents who were getting their first look at homes and businesses that were suddenly gone. Those early days were not easy for our own staff; such a vast tragedy is not easy to see, the sadness and despair in people’s voices not easy to hear.

But it brought our staff together around a story that is already changing their lives. Every single person on our staff has had some piece of this developing story, whether it’s pulling together a detailed resource guide for victims, fielding the phone calls from desperate people seeking our help, sifting through the piles of ashes alongside grieving survivors, or returning to Maui day after day to document the overwhelming realization of what has just happened through words and pictures.

We’re committed. There are important and necessary community conversations that need to be facilitated, public decisions to be made based on as much as we can learn about what fueled this tragedy. We’d love your feedback and we hope you’ll get involved any way you can in the ongoing public debate.

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

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