Kula residents readily acknowledge their losses are nowhere near the level experienced by Lahaina wildfire survivors but they share many of the same frustrations.

It’s not unusual for Upper Kula residents terrorized by an Aug. 8 wildfire to wake up to find Pohakuokala Gulch, where the blaze is believed to have originated, filled with smoke from deep-seated hot spots still smoldering three months after 202 acres burned and 17 area homes were destroyed.

A separate 1,081-acre wildfire in nearby Olinda that same day claimed three residences. Both fires were 100% contained by Sept. 28 but have yet to be declared extinguished due to fire remnants in difficult-to-reach terrain that the Maui Fire Department said pose no immediate threat.

Preliminary data released Monday by the Hawaii Insurance Division estimated $32 million in residential property losses from the Upcountry fires and another $602,000 in personal vehicle losses, but no lives were lost.

Several homes were destroyed along Kulalani Drive in Upper Kula in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Several homes were destroyed along Kulalani Drive in Upper Kula in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Standing on the deck of his Kulalani Drive home perched on the edge of the winding gulch, Steve Anderson, 67, frequently scans the landscape for telltale signs of a flareup.

The retired National Park Service biologist was on the mainland when the fire broke out. Like others in the neighborhood who were home at the time, his wife, Elizabeth, used a garden hose to fend off the flames for as long as she could before evacuating to safety.

While the couple’s home remains standing and they continue to live there, relying on an array of air purifiers, at least eight other nearby residences were lost, seemingly at random, as embers from the wildfire swirled through the gulch, carried by winds of 60 mph and higher whipping in all directions.

The property just next door was destroyed, and Anderson is eager to finish the cleanup of his own home and yard but feels there’s no point to it until the burned properties are cleared.

That process, being overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, started Tuesday, causing additional anxiety among many community members.

An Oct. 15 advisory from the Hawaii Department of Health says preliminary data from wildfire ash collected from eight burned homes in Kula showed “very high levels” of the heavy metal arsenic and elevated levels of lead and cobalt, posing a potential health risk to people exposed to the ash.

Anderson said he and his wife plan to stay somewhere else during the several days fire debris is being scooped up and hauled away from his neighbor’s lot. 

“It’s not worth our lives to stay,” he said.

National Park Service retiree Ross Hart, 71, is eager to rebuild after his Kulalani Drive home of nearly 40 years was destroyed in an Aug. 8 wildfire in Upper Kula, Maui. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)
National Park Service retiree Ross Hart, 71, is eager to rebuild after his Kulalani Drive home of nearly 40 years was destroyed in an Aug. 8 wildfire in Upper Kula. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)

Higher up Kulalani Drive, Ross Hart, a fellow Park Service retiree, was wetting down the ruins of the four-bedroom home he built almost 40 years ago.

His family found shelter for two months at the Pukalani Baptist Church parsonage before renting a place nearby. He plans to rebuild as soon as possible and shrugged when asked if he is worried about possible exposure to toxins from the debris cleanup.

Hart, 71, and several other Upper Kula residents who spoke to Civil Beat last week seemed satisfied that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s spray application of the Soiltac soil stabilizer on burned properties seems to have done its job of containing the ash and dust to keep it from getting airborne.  

“It’ll be handled in the cleanup,” Hart said. “We’ll still have ash from the forest and whatnot but that’s Mother Nature, even if it does have toxins in it. It’s just the way it is.”

Although Hart and Anderson diverged on the potential health concerns surrounding the fire debris removal, they joined other Kula residents in expressing frustration at the pace of the government response to the disaster and especially what they described as poor communication with the community.

Many of the Upcountry meetings with various agencies were limited to those whose homes burned, even though the impacts of the disaster are widespread. As a result, Anderson said he’s gotten most of his information from friends and neighbors who were privy to those meetings and from stopping groups of officials as they walk through the neighborhood.

“The frustration over communication and the government response is palpable,” he said. “Everybody understands this is small potatoes compared to the Lahaina situation, but nonetheless this is where we live, and the only way we know what’s coming right now is really with community outreach to each other.”

Several homes were destroyed along Kulalani Drive in Upper Kula in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
While some rebuilding work has commenced for homes not completely destroyed in the Aug. 8 fires in Kula, others will have to work their way through the steps of the recovery process. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

A county spokesperson said sharing information on the cleanup efforts is the responsibility of the federal agencies involved.

In the meantime, the Federal Emergency Management Agency closed its Upcountry disaster recovery center Oct. 31, with others still open in Kahului and Lahaina, and once-teeming relief hubs for Upcountry fire survivors also have scaled back in recent days.

The hub at Kula Marketplace is largely unmanned by volunteers at times, leaving residents to drop by to fill up water containers and pick up cases of bottled water under a pop-up tent, and the Upcountry Strong hub last week relocated to the lower level of the Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani after announcing relief supplies would be offered to anyone in need from East Maui and the North Shore as well as Lahaina and Upcountry residents.

Because a relatively small number of properties were impacted by the Upcountry fires and damage to major infrastructure and utilities was nowhere near as complete as in the Aug. 8 inferno that razed large swaths of Lahaina, killing at least 99 people and consuming an estimated 2,200 structures, recovery efforts in the rural region have been moving at a much faster pace.

The Phase 1 removal of household hazardous waste such as compressed gas cylinders, pesticides, ammunition and batteries from the Upcountry burn zones and application of Soiltac was completed by the EPA in mid-September.

Phase 2 removal of remaining structural ash and debris at nearly two dozen Upcountry properties saw site assessments for hazardous materials and bulk asbestos removal completed Oct. 23 by Dawson Solutions, under a $52.5 million contract covering fire-damaged sites in Lahaina and Upcountry.

In a best-case scenario, USACE officials said debris removal Upcountry could be completed by mid-December, at which point, with county approval, fire victims would be free to clear any remaining debris and move toward rebuilding.

Different Places, Same Concerns

The roughly 7,000 Kula residents who live in the 35-square-mile region on the lower west-facing slope of Haleakala generally are far more affluent – and far less diverse – than in Lahaina, where 13,000 people reside in an 8-square-mile area wedged between Launiupoko to the south and Kaanapali to the north. 

U.S. Census Bureau data shows Kula’s population is 54% white compared with 25% in Lahaina and 28% statewide, while Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise not quite 4% of the Upcountry community’s residents, compared with a little more than 10% in Lahaina and Hawaii as a whole.

And unlike Lahaina, there are far fewer immigrants, with 10% foreign-born Kula residents vs. 32% in Lahaina.

Although agritourism and day-trippers to Haleakala National Park help support Kula’s flower and produce farms, shops and restaurants, there are limited visitor accommodations beyond a few rustic inns and vacation rentals.

Kula Lodge reopened six weeks after the Aug. 8 wildfire but with limited hours. A reduced staff of six is serves only a fraction of its normal business. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beath/2023)

Kula Lodge, which operates a restaurant, the Kula Marketplace gift shop and five lodging units, reopened in mid-September for limited hours Wednesday through Sunday with staffing down from 72 employees to just six.

Before the August fires, the lodge, located at the 3,200-foot elevation, welcomed some 300 customers on weekdays and 700 on weekends, according to Chief Operating Officer Isa Shipley. During a two-hour period on a recent Friday, the restaurant had served just 56 patrons.

“It’s slow but we have great weekends. I don’t want to say it’s all bad,” Shipley said. “There are challenging days, of course, with smaller numbers and smaller revenue, and the water’s been a problem, and obviously the lack of tourists on island is detrimental to our success. I’m not really sure what this looks like going forward.”

A short distance away, Sandalwoods Cafe & Inn has yet to reopen after a portion of its property burned.

The two establishments are located in the last Upcountry zones that were cleared of unsafe water advisories first issued Aug. 11 by the county Department of Water Supply as a precaution in the wake of the Maui wildfires. The final advisories were lifted Oct. 31 when the department announced it had determined that fire-related contaminants did not impact the Upper Kula water system.

But the community’s water woes continue. Two days later, on Nov. 2, the water department declared a Stage 2 water shortage for the Upcountry region that went into effect Wednesday after daily demand exceeded supply by 20% due to extended drought conditions and other factors including wildfire mitigation. The declaration requires consumers to cease water use for nonessential purposes such as watering lawns and washing vehicles.

Many Kula residents were unable to drink or use their freshwater at home until the county lifted its advisory Oct. 31. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

“People just got their water and now they have to cut back,” said Bobbie Patnode, president of the Kula Community Association, who has lived in the area since 2000.

Patnode watched as the August wildfire approached to within 1,000 feet of her Crater Road home. Apple and peach trees on her family’s nearly 3-acre farm, which grows organic vegetables, suffered wind damage during the harrowing event.

Although different in terms of demographics and geography, residents of both Kula and Lahaina have expressed many of the same concerns about mitigating the threat of future wildfires and building more resilient communities.

The 50 residents who attended an Oct. 18 Kula Community Association meeting to discuss opportunities and dilemmas faced during and in the aftermath of the fires urged more responsible land management and a return to traditional Native Hawaiian values and stewardship, along with creation and funding of workforce development for land stewardship and watershed restoration.

The group in its summary of discussions also advocated for underground utilities; updating infrastructure systems using money generated from tourism; adequate water storage and pumping capacity with back-up systems to fight fires; establishment of fire breaks; consideration of a volunteer fire department; and improving emergency communications, noting that “poor communication occurred throughout the crisis.”

Patnode said residents have reached a breaking point in tolerating longstanding government inaction on Maui’s critical needs such as housing, water and wildfire mitigation, adding the current situation has spurred more younger people to turn out for association meetings, which typically skew older.

“They’re looking for action. Plans were done and nobody took action on them and look at what we lost,” she said, referring to reports on a destructive 2018 wildfire in Lahaina that foreshadowed the more recent tragedy.

Some landowners in Kula are using downed eucalyptus trees to control the soil by lining them perpendicular and adding mulch. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Some landowners in Kula are using downed eucalyptus trees to control the soil by lining them perpendicular and adding mulch. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

As an example of the communication gap, Patnode pointed to electronic road signs that recently appeared in Upper Kula warning motorists to look out for heavy trucks starting this week, with no further explanation. The timing coincides with the start of Phase 2 debris removal, but only affected property owners are being notified of when the work will begin.

Rather than wallowing in bitterness and disappointment, though, Patnode said, “the community really wants to work on this. They really want to figure out what should we be doing to make sure we’re prepared for another disaster like this.”

Some residents aren’t waiting for the government to take action and recently formed the Kula Community Watershed Alliance, whose volunteers have been clearing several smaller burned areas along Pohakuokala Gulch, installing terraces to prevent erosion and turning fallen trees into wood chips and mulch for the eventual restoration of native landscapes. The group so far has raised more than $225,000 for its efforts.

Wider Notification Sought

Property owners are being given 72 hours prior notification of when crews will begin clearing fire debris. Some residents living close to burned homes have requested that they, too, receive advance notice of the work so they can plan to vacate their homes or take other precautions to minimize their exposure risk.

“We’ve heard that concern,” said Mark Cardwell, an emergency management specialist with the Army Corps. “We will be notifying only the property owner of the debris removal process.”

He said one thing hindering that additional communication is limited access to information, such as not knowing who the neighboring property owners are. He said it’s “just not part of the process.”

Signs have been going up in Kula that indicate where properties are in the recovery process, from hazard tree surveys to cultural clearances and eventually county approval. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)

Cardwell added that Kula is a tight-knit community and the “coconut wireless” has been effective in spreading the word about recovery operations.

In an Oct. 26 email to Maui County Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat, an ad hoc group of more than 100 residents pushed for a more inclusive communications process, including release of the full schedule of debris removal activity and two weeks advance notice.

The email notes that half of 36 households surveyed by the group indicated they would prefer to stay at a hotel or similar accommodations if assistance is made available, and only nine said they plan to stay home when the work is performed on neighboring properties.

“The Kula community feels forgotten about and that they are the canaries in the coal mine, adding insult to injury,” said Sara Tekula, who emailed Sugimura on behalf of the group and heads the Kula Community Watershed Alliance.

Sugimura, who organized five prior Upcountry community meetings and a resource fair, said she is looking into easing some of the concerns.

“They want to get into their houses,” she said. “A lot of good things have happened to satisfy some of the concerns, but of course we won’t know the full impacts until we actually see it happen.”

Sensing the growing anxiety within the community, Sugimura and Mayor Richard Bissen’s office hastily organized a public meeting Thursday evening in Makawao to discuss ongoing wildfire debris removal with county and federal officials.

Interim Maui Emergency Management Agency leader Darryl Oliveira apologized to the 50 or so residents assembled for not being more present in Kula but vowed that once USACE informs the county that 72-hour notification has been given for debris clearing on a property, someone from his staff would be going door to door to contact neighbors.

A Department of Health representative was not present at the meeting to respond to questions about what residents living close to burned properties can do to get help with their reported fire-related health problems, but officials indicated they would follow up and suggested residents start the right-of-entry process to allow for possible soil sampling.

The Army Corps said a total of 26 properties in Olinda and Kula were deemed eligible for the government-sponsored Consolidated Debris Removal Program, with FEMA covering 100% of owners’ out-of-pocket costs.

Several homes were destroyed along Kulalani Drive and Haleakala Highway in Upper Kula in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Several homes were destroyed along Kulalani Drive and Haleakala Highway in Upper Kula in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

At last count, right-of-entry, required to participate in the program, had been granted by the owners of 14 lots, with others in the works. At least one property owner opted out and will have to clear their lot at their own expense in compliance with stringent standards yet to be established by the county.

One crew currently is on the ground clearing the first Kula home site and notice of impending work has been given to two other property owners, according to USACE chemist and subject matter expert Cory Koger. Up to four crews could be called into action depending on the eventual number of participants.

Phase 2 debris removal includes cultural resource surveys and monitoring under an $18.7 million contract awarded to Honolulu-based AEPAC, which has subcontracted several Native Hawaiian organizations to provide cultural monitors throughout the process.

“We still have archaeologists out there looking for archaeological resources,” Koger said. “We will have Native Hawaiian monitors on site during debris removal, so the same level of attention and detail is being provided to Kula that would be in Lahaina.”

An estimated 7,500 tons of ash and debris are expected to be removed from the Upcountry sites. The process includes collecting 6 inches of “incidental soil” from the ash footprint on each property for sampling at mainland labs, with results expected in seven to 10 days. If the samples exceed state Department of Health criteria, an additional 6 inches of soil will be collected to remove any “immediate environmental and human health threat,” Koger said.

Depending on the conditions encountered at individual lots, he said it should take an average of three to four days to clear each property. However, that could stretch to as long as 25 days if an extra round of soil sampling is required.

Koger said crews will use misting and other “wet methods” to minimize ash disturbance. Operations will be halted if winds exceed 35 mph.

The public is likely to see skid-steer loaders depositing ash and debris into plastic-lined trucks or containers, wrapped burrito style then sealed, and covered with an additional tarp for transport to the Central Maui Landfill, where it will be placed in a dedicated cell.

A separate landfill for debris and ash from the Lahaina fire, likely containing some human remains, is planned on state land in Olowalu in West Maui.

Once USACE has cleared a property and sprayed a hydroseed mulch to curb erosion, Koger said right-of-entry would return to Maui County, halting further federal government access to those private lots. Under Ordinance 5562, passed by the County Council in October, owners would then be free to remove any remaining debris after obtaining a certificate from a designated county department.

Owners of fire-damaged properties can already apply for new building permits, but none will be issued until the structural debris cleanup is confirmed, either through the government program or the alternate program, according to the ordinance.

‘Frustration’ And ‘Fatigue’

Mark Ross had yet to receive the 72-hour notice that debris removal would be starting on his Kualono Place property on the edge of Pohakuokala Gulch above Haleakala Highway.

A white brick chimney stands at one end of the ruins as a stark monument to the disaster amid the blackened scraps of an elliptical exercise machine, kitchen appliances, mattress springs, a motorcycle and small sedan.

Upper Kula resident Mark Ross visited his fire-ravaged property on Kualono Place Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, while waiting to learn when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin debris removal. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)
Upper Kula resident Mark Ross visited his fire-ravaged property on Kualono Place Saturday while waiting to learn when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin debris removal. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)

Ross, 63, bought the three-bedroom home in 2001 and rented it out when his family moved to Makawao in 2007. He planned to return to live there when he retires from his contracting business in a couple years.

He’s already engaged an architect to design a new home on the lot but faces a number of uncertainties before rebuilding, including severe erosion into the gulch after supporting vegetation burned and having to replace his cesspool with a septic system, an expense he’s hoping will be subsidized by the county.

Walking his nearly 1-acre lot Saturday, Ross pointed to a eucalyptus stand by the highway where a tree was toppled by high winds Aug. 8, bringing down utility lines and setting off a chain reaction that he said sparked a small fire on a patch of grass above the other end of his property.

He said neighbors’ attempts to put out the flames with hoses were thwarted when the pipes ran dry, allowing the blaze to rampage through the gulch.

The Maui Fire Department said the cause of the Upcountry fires remains under investigation.

”Frustration” and “fatigue” are the two words Ross used to describe the mood of the Upper Kula fire survivors, who were also galvanized by the disaster.

“The (watershed) alliance has been a godsend because it’s pulled all of us together. We’ve met people that we didn’t even know existed because we couldn’t see their house. And now everyone’s talking to each other and helping each other out,” Ross said. “That part’s been cool.”

In his own case, he said he is forward-looking but is sometimes overwhelmed “by the fact that we’re still sitting on this pile of ash three months later.”

“We’re trying to learn from this experience and where the pitfalls are, where we’re running into issues, so we can go to Lahaina and make them aware of what we ran into so they’re not surprised, because we were surprised about so many items that came up in the process and every time we turned around it seemed like we were hitting a wall,” Ross said. “And of course there’s the why and then there’s no answer. So communication is important, and that’s what I think was seriously lacking here.”

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

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