Denby Fawcett: The Importance Of Salvaging Even Small Items From Lahaina's Ruins - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

A Buddha statue, a wooden trellis and a graduation photo are among the intact treasures found in the rubble.

Material objects   — both museum quality and beloved family heirlooms  — pulled from the ashes of Lahaina will be treasured in the future to help tell stories of life in the seaside town before much of it was incinerated.

Very few things were spared in the Aug. 8 blaze as it blasted through the heart of the historic town killing at least 99 people and destroying more than 2,200 structures. But as more and more residents are allowed back into the burn zone, they are beginning to find things of family value that survived the intense heat.

Some intact items are surprising such as the wooden trellis at the Baldwin Home Museum with live green vines still clinging to it and an earlier discovery of a charred graduation photograph that blew from the fire across the Auau Channel to Lanai.

“The tangible things help tell the history of the area for families, some of whom have lived in Lahaina for generations. The items, even small possessions expand our understanding of what life was like. They will help add to the story fire survivors will be able tell in the future as they look back at old photographs of the area,” says Malia Van Heukelem.

Van Heukelem and paper conservator Liana Naʻauao will be in Kakoʻo Maui Resource Hub at Maui Mall from 10 am to 4 pm. on Nov. 6 and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster Recovery Center in the Lahaina Civic Center gymnasium from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 7 to connect with residents and institutions to hear about their recovery efforts and find out how they can help them in the future.

They are Hawaiiʻs only two National Heritage Responders.

National Heritage responders are preservation experts afiliated with the nonprofit American Institute for Conservation. They move into action fast after disasters all over the country of which there are many these days.

Much of Lahaina was left in ruins after the Aug. 8 fire, but some buildings and items survived the flames. Recovered family artifacts and heirlooms will provide important memories years after the disaster. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

When the National Heritage Respondersʻ 24 hour hotline first appeared in 2008, it received fewer than 10 calls a year for help. This year there have been 70.

Like the Red Cross, National Heritage Responders activate quickly after fires and floods. Red Cross volunteers get displaced survivors into housing, National Heritage Responders connect institutions and individuals with government agencies and nonprofits to assist them as they begin to rescue personal treasures and historic artifacts. They also offer workshops on how to safely retrieve and restore objects.

Malia Van Heukelem National Heritage Responders Denby Fawcett column Maui Fire salvage recovery
Malia Van Heukelem is one of two National Heritage Responders in the state. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

After the Lahaina fire, Van Heukelen immediately reached out by phone and email to Lahainaʻs many cultural heritage sites and historic schools and churches.

“It is an internal struggle for us to be focused on salvaging the material objects spared by the fire when Lahaina residents are in the throes of so many larger problems, but we are trying to do our piece to help the recovery. We know this is not the most important piece but it is what we know how to do best,” said Van Heukelem.

Kimberly Flook, deputy director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, said Van Heukelem got in touch with the organization in the week after the fire “to make sure we were aware of every government and private advocacy group that could help us.”

“Malia has a quiet voice, but she has been a major person for us. We are still working with her,” said Flook.

Baldwin Home Museum Maui Lahaina fire salvage recovery artifacts
Baldwin Home Museum. Wooden trellis with green vine still attached survive the Lahaina fire. (Courtesy Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

Lahaina Restoration Foundation owns or manages 13 cultural heritage sites and collections in the town.

Flook said through Van Heukelem’s advocacy the foundation connected with Eric Chang of the Hawaii Museums Association to arrange a ride through of Lahaina town on Sept. 1 before it was officially opened for the foundation to enter.

“We had to stay in our vehicle, but it was an important trip because up until then we had only seen photos of the damage to the cultural sites taken by first responders. On the drive, we were able to see for ourselves what had happened and take our own pictures out of the car window. It was encouraging because some structures were better off than we had expected.”

A month later, Maui fire salvage information was presented online by Van Heukelem and other conservation experts in NHR webinars that are available on YouTube:

Correction: An earlier version of this story said they gave three workshops on Maui.

Van Heukelem said the health and safety workshop had to come first because of the toxicity of the Lahaina burn zone.

“We donʻt know what will be on the surface of items. You have to asssume the worst,” she said. 

Van Heukelem was a good fit to become a National Heritage Responder after her years of learning and guiding others on how to retrieve and restore damaged items following the 2004 flash flood at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

The flood damaged 32 buildings on campus and caused $82 million in repair costs. Hamilton Library was the hardest hit accounting for half of the damage costs with thousands of historic documents and maps damaged or destroyed.

Van Heukelem was hired in 2011 to work on the flood damage. She is an art archivist, currently in charge of the Jean Charlot collection at the Hamilton Library.

Lynn Ann Davis, then-preservation director at the library, and Van Heukelem became so knowledgable after their flood recovery work that other institutions suffering from their own disasters began to seek them out to help as conservation consultants.

Paper conservator Naʻauao has graduate certificate in museum studies from UH Manoa and a masterʻs degree in art conservation from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

She does not hold out much hope for finding important papers in Lahainaʻs fire zone.

Lahaina Jodo Mission Buddha statue Maui Lahaina fires recovery salvage Denby Fawcett column
This metal Buddha statue survived the flames. (Courtesy Lahaina Jodo Mission/2023)

Hard materials made of metal and stone are the most likely to have survived like the large copper and bronze Buddha statue at Lahaina Jodo Mission and family treasures some returning residents have found such as ceramic pieces and Kamana Ngʻs discovery of heirloom jewelry including a jade ring from his grandfather and a scorched watch.

With thin, fragile paper the chances of recovery from an intense fire is practically nil and and worse, if it is found it can be hazardous because paper easily absorbs soot that can be toxin-filled.

But Naʻauao isn’t ready to rule out the chance of discovering paper that withstood the flames and heat.

“It is difficult to know until people can get in there and see exactly where the fire moved,” she says. “You never know. You want to give people hope.”

Many families are now pulling objects out of the ashes that are cracked, stained or exploded by the heat into small pieces.

Van Heukelem said even small pieces can be worth salvaging. “You may want to retrieve them if they are the only thing you have to tell the story of the place,” she said.

Small fragments, she said, can be put in a picture frame to be shown and talked about in the future.

Or if door hinges are all thatʻs left after a wooden building has burned down, the hinges could be worth  keeping as part of the story of a home or store that was once there.

“Even the smallest thing thatʻs recovered can spur memories and stories of a life that once was,” she said.

Read this next:

Chaos And Heartbreak Of Lahaina Fire Caught In Newly Released Bodycam Footage

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Is it worth the health risk, to look for sentimental remains?Sometimes in life, you just have to move on.Or create more harm and suffering down the road.Damaging your health. We can learn from 9/11 responders and their current status.And rebuilding, is that a good idea?The soil and sea will be contaminated for decades.Our own Fukushima.

Civilbeet · 3 weeks ago

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