A third of the fire’s victims died on a narrow dead-end street in central Lahaina, unable to access an alternative route to safety.

Laura Boes clutched the steering wheel and cried softly as she slowly drove down Kuhua Street, occasionally glancing out the driver’s side window as the smoke billowing into her neighborhood turned darker shades of gray. 

“The cats,” she said with a whimper as her husband, Kirk, filmed the eerie scene unfolding outside their car. 

It was 3:50 p.m. on Aug. 8 and the couple had decided just 12 minutes prior that it was time to evacuate. They had received no emergency alert, no official warning that it was time to leave.

But they also knew that if the fire reached their neighborhood, it would be nearly impossible to escape.

Cell phone video shot by Kirk Boes as he and his wife drove down Kuhua Street shows the smoke already making visibility on the street poor at 3:50 p.m. on Aug. 8. (Courtesy: Kirk Boes)

The Boes had lived at the end of Kuhua Street for nearly a decade. The narrow, dead-end street ran parallel to a large industrial area that had once been the Pioneer Sugar Mill and was often difficult to navigate because of cars parked both legally — and illegally — along the street, Boes said.  

Yet for more than 100 households on half a dozen streets in central Lahaina, Kuhua Street was the only way to get out of the neighborhood without driving directly into the path of the fire. For many, it was a death trap.

A map released by the Maui Police Department last week showed that nearly a third of fire victims died on Kuhua, a street the length of roughly three and a half football fields. Most of the people who died on the street had made it only blocks — sometimes even just a few dozen yards — from their homes.

As the Boes drove down Kuhua at 3:55 p.m., the wind was violently whipping electrical lines back and forth. Downed branches from a mango tree were littered across part of the street. Traffic was already backing up to a standstill as people tried to make their way out onto Lahainaluna Drive.

A video shot by a neighbor who left soon after showed a garden hose shooting up in the air by a mango tree on Aki Street, an effort, neighbors said, by the 82-year-old man who lived there to keep the tree from catching fire.

By 4:35 p.m. the street was almost completely impassable. Downed trees and powerlines blocked sections of the road. Cars were surrounded by flames.

“We’re screwed right now, ma’am,” said one 911 caller, who was desperately trying to turn left onto Kuhua from a nearby street. “Our car is heating up, ma’am. Everyone’s car is heating up. We are inches from fire on both sides.”

Residents tried ramming through a gate that would have let people exit through the old Pioneer Mill Co. site, Boes said. They used garden hoses to try and prevent trees from catching fire and blocking the roadway. When all else failed, some jumped out of cars and tried to flee on foot. 

Nearly three dozen people didn’t make it.

No Way Through

Kuhua Street is at the bottom of a densely populated neighborhood that had once been employee housing for the sugar mill.

The cost of homes in the neighborhood had risen significantly in recent years, but it was still a mostly working-class neighborhood filled with multigenerational households that had often pooled resources to purchase a home.

A third of the houses on Kuhua Street were single-wall wood homes and nearly half of the houses were deemed to be of poor building quality, according to real estate records. All of them faced a chainlink fence surrounding an industrial area that had been used for a variety of purposes since the mill shut down. Some homes had a view of a coffee processing plant, others a cluster of dumpsters and stored vehicles.

When Kirk Boes and his wife bought their home on Kuhua Street in 2014, he petitioned the county to have a “dead end” sign placed on the street. At the time, an error in some online map services was incorrectly directing people down Kuhua Street on their way to the shops at Lahaina Gateway, he said.

Map of Kahua Street on Maui with marked dead ends.
Kuhua Street was the only route out of the neighborhood for residents of half a dozen streets in the densely crowded neighborhood. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

More than a decade ago, the county floated an idea to expand Kuhua Street and turn it into a thruway that would let people do just that. The project would have provided an alternate route in emergencies, according to preliminary proposals. The county went so far as to commission an environmental assessment of the idea but never moved forward with it.

Maui County officials did not provide an update Monday on the status of the proposal to extend Kuhua Street toward Lahaina Gateway Center. It remains unclear how far the project advanced, if at all, after the final environmental assessment was completed.

In the meantime, the street continued to get more congested. Families grappling with the island’s tight housing market converted garages and workshops into additional bedrooms. One house on the block had grown from a four-room dwelling to an 18-room structure between 2006 and 2020, when it was foreclosed on and sold at auction to an off-island investor.

Confusion about how to get around the lower part of the neighborhood known as Kuhua Camp still lingered up until the fire. In one emergency call during the fire, a 911 operator asked a driver trying to make their way onto Kuhua Street if they knew how to get out on Kuhua, “going towards Keawe, like back towards Foodland?”

There is no way to get to Keawe Street from Kuhua.

There was only one alternative for people stuck in vehicles on Kuhua Street, according to Boes — a large fire gate on the north side of several businesses housed in Quonset huts halfway down Kuhua. The gate had a sign warning people not to block the gate, though cars were often parked there, he said.

The 911 operator, who spent more than 13 minutes trying to help the caller find a way out, also asked if they knew how to get out through the industrial site or if the gate was closed.

“I think so. We’re not sure,” the driver said.

A Desperate Drive

Property records show that at least nine of the people who died on Kuhua Street lived there, including the 82-year-old man who had tried to keep the mango tree at the corner of Aki from catching fire.

Most of the two dozen other people who are shown on the police map as having died on Kuhua Street — or at the intersection of Kuhua and Lahainaluna Road — lived within a few-block radius.

Folau Tone, who lived in a multigenerational home on Kuhua Street, tried to get around the downed mango tree by turning left onto Aki Street, but was warned by drivers that there was no way out on Aki, according to a New York Times report. He managed to wedge his truck between the tree and the industrial fence and get through by gunning it. His parents, sister, and 7-year-old nephew died in their car down the street.

Rebecca Rans and her partner Doug Gloege lived on nearby Paeohi Street. The couple was found behind a building a few blocks from their home, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.

“Her left slipper was on and it was clear she perished trying desperately to escape,” the suit says.

Terri Thomas was trying to drive down Kuhua Street with an elderly neighbor and another friend, when her SUV was engulfed in flames, according to a statement provided by her niece to NBC News.

Eugene and Maria Recolizado and their 11-year-old son lived on Aki Street. The family appeared to have turned right onto Kuhua Street — perhaps because they could not have made it past the mango tree at Aki and Kuhua.

When the passenger of a gray pickup truck called 911 at 4:35 p.m., the truck was stuck one house down from the Recolizados’ home.

“We are trapped with a convoy of cars,” the caller said, several minutes before telling the 911 operator that flames were inches from the vehicle on both sides.

The 911 operator, who stayed on the line for more than 13 minutes as the callers rammed their way to safety, could do little other than assure the evacuees that emergency personnel were in the area trying to help everyone.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, apologizing again and again as she tried to help them figure out a way through.

Civil Bear data editor Matthew Leonard and reporter Marcel Honore contributed to this report.

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

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