‘All our houses were burned down to ashes': FFs among those who lost homes in Hawaii wildfire
Devastation is personal for Maui County firefighters who lost homes when the fire swept into Lahaina
By Christie Wilson
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
LAHAINA, Hawaii — On the morning of Aug. 8, before the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century began its rampage through Lahaina, Maui County firefighter Aina Kohler was on duty at the Lahaina Fire Station while husband Jonny Varona, also a firefighter, was home a few blocks away on Wahikuli Road with their 12-year-old twins Kimo and Kini.
Lacking power and phone service, Varona, 41, said that when he began smelling smoke he went outside to see what was going on.
“That’s when I realized it wasn’t just from a brush fire, that homes were being burned,” he recalled. “It was really dark and we drove up the street to get a better look at it from a friend’s house and could hear the popping and explosions of gas tanks and whatnot.
“At that point I wasn’t thinking it was going toward us, I was more thinking about the smoke and we don’t want to be in that, and getting the kids to a safe place. I knew it was really bad as far as the human loss from how big the cloud was and how fast the winds were blowing,” Varona said.
“We went back to the house and I told the kids to grab a bag and get whatever clothes for the night, not thinking it would come to the neighborhood. But I needed to get to the station to see if I could help.”
The raging wildfire, fanned by winds of 60 mph and higher, did reach their Wahikuli neighborhood on its way to consuming 2,168 acres in the largely working-class town of 13,000. The death toll so far has surpassed 110 people, with many more fatalities expected.
More than 2,200 structures were burned, most of them residences, including the homes of 18 active- duty state and county firefighters at last count, according to the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 1463, which has about 200 members on Maui. Other first responders also lost their homes, officials said.
“They lost generational homes — everything — while still working every day to do whatever they can,” said Jay Fujita, an executive board member with the union and 24-year Maui Fire Department veteran.
‘Did we make it?’
Once at the Lahaina Fire Station with his kids, Varona began assisting fire victims who arrived needing medical attention, and whatever else he could do.
“I stayed at the station awhile, listened to the (MFD) radio, made sure we heard Aina’s voice and that she was OK,” he said. The couple had exchanged only brief texts around noon, before the wildfire was unleashed.
When the wind changed and flames starting taking over Wahikuli, they evacuated to the Lahaina Civic Center, but not before reuniting briefly with Kohler, 42, at the fire station. When the shelter was forced to close, Varona and his two children headed north, stopping by the Napili Fire Station and finding shelter with friends.
He reported for duty the next day at the Lahaina Fire Station, extinguishing hot spots and flare-ups. Varona and Kohler, who have served with MFD for six years, also got a tentative glance at their home looking mauka from Honoapiilani Highway.
“We drove by it in the morning,” he said. “You could kind of see it from the highway. I could see all my neighbors’ houses and I asked Aina — she was pretty shell-shocked — ‘Did we make it?’ and she just didn’t really have words. She kind of shook her head.”
A later visit to their neighborhood confirmed the worst. Although several other residences survived, Varona and Kohler’s home of more than three years had been reduced to “ashes and concrete footings.”
The family is fortunate to have since been offered longer-term housing in Napili. Also lost in the wildfire was Kohler’s surf school on Prison Street in Lahaina town and a small coffee shop they had opened there at the beginning of the year. Her sister and parents lost their homes, too.
“It’s hard to grasp. Our house burned down and our businesses burned down, and I don’t really care because we have everybody,” Varona said. “It just puts the level of the tragedy into perspective, and I think it’s gonna hit home more and more how hard Lahaina and our neighbors were hit.”
Maui firefighter Ikaika Neizman had just gotten off duty from the Lahaina Fire Station around 9 a.m. Aug. 8 after what he called “a hectic night” and was hoping to get some sleep when he returned to his Hoapili Street home makai of Honoapiilani Highway. High winds and other dicey conditions had triggered multiple false alarms the night before, he said, and that morning the three-year MFD veteran had stayed to help put out a small brush fire.
Neizman, 39, lived with wife Melisa, 6-year-old daughter Mila and their two dogs and cat in an ohana unit on a compound comprising four properties, including the home he had grown up in. His mother and sister lived in the main house and other relatives occupied the other residences.
The strengthening winds spread debris throughout the area and blew apart the sheds on two neighboring lots, Neizman said. He scrambled to collect some of the scattered items and tie down loose materials. Then the power went out and things got worse from there.
“We could see from our house across the gas station a telephone pole fall into the highway, and we could see multiple trees falling in the Safeway parking lot, and then we could see some black smoke,” he said. “The black smoke was very thick and moving very fast downhill. And being a firefighter I thought, that’s a lot of combustion going off, so that means that’s a lot of fuel that’s burning — something big.”
Watching as the traffic became more frantic, Neizman said he ran to the highway where he saw a friend who told him that the houses in mauka areas had caught fire. It was around 3:30 p.m., he said, and about two hours later police drove through his neighborhood warning residents to evacuate.
When his sister-in-law, who lived on lower Lahainaluna Road, arrived after fleeing the flames, Neizman said they began packing up their pets, pillows, blankets and a few other things, fully expecting to return the next morning.
Unable to drive south toward Maalaea, Neizman and his wife and daughter headed north toward Kaanapali.
“Looking back in the rearview mirror you could just see a huge, big, black cloud of smoke behind us. And the whole time I was debating, do I want to get into the fire station or do I want to get my family safe.”
It wasn’t an easy choice, admitted Neizman, still obviously anguished by the dilemma.
“I kept seeing my fire sticker in my car, and I’m driving away from the fire,” he said.
After realizing there was a roadblock at Hanakaoo Beach Park to keep cars from entering Lahaina, he decided to pull off the highway and park at Wahikuli Wayside along the shoreline, below the fire station, to monitor the fire’s progress. As much as he wanted to get his family out, he said he didn’t want to be blocked from returning to help his colleagues battle the conflagration.
Heeding his wife and daughter’s growing fears, Neizman waited until 7 p.m. to seek safety and head north. “I finally told my wife, ‘OK, let’s get out of here but I’m coming in as soon as possible,” he said.
After getting his family settled at his uncle’s house in Kaanapali Hillside, Neizman returned to the Lahaina Fire Station at around 5 a.m. Aug. 9, which under normal circumstances would have been the start of a four-day break in his work schedule. He pitched in where he could, grabbing more hoses, refilling trucks and performing other tasks.
Accounts of the harrowing events of Aug. 8 describe an inferno that spread so fast and so fiercely that firefighters were unable to get ahead of the blaze or attack from its flanks. MFD lost two fire trucks, and a fire captain was seriously injured, as flames overtook firefighting crews.
Neizman recalled the scene at the fire station that next morning.
“These are fittest, bravest guys I know and they all wanted to go out there,” he said. “You could see the exhaustion in their eyes.”
Neizman and several other firefighters didn’t get a chance to check on their homes until that afternoon. “It was burned down,” he said. “We didn’t stay there very long. All our houses were burned down to ashes.”
His father, a Maui police officer, died when Neizman was only 3 years old, and lost in the fire were old videos of his dad along with other family memorabilia.
“The last memories I ever had of him were on old VHS tapes I had been meaning to send off to digitize,” he said. “Everything else is replaceable but I can’t get back the last videos I had of him.”
The Neizman ohana has found temporary lodging in Napili for another month, sharing space with his brother and his five children and two dogs.
Maui firefighter relief funds
Maui County Firefighter Relief Fund, in coordination with Maui United Way and ‘Aina Momona, will disburse all funds raised directly to affected first responders and their ohana. Donate at 808ne.ws/mauiresponder.
California Fire Foundation has established a relief fund with 100% of proceeds going to Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 1463, to distribute. Donate at cafirefoundation.org.
Mauifirestore.com, established by Maui Fire Department families before the Lahaina disaster to support its softball teams and other activities, is donating all proceeds directly to help first responders and their ohana.
Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund is providing financial resources to those affected by the Maui wildfires, first responders or not, with a focus on rapid response and recovery. Donate at hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/maui-strong.