Residents of Lahaina Prepare for Emotional Return to Fire-Ravaged Properties

by Michael Nguyen
Lahaina wildfire reentry

Shortly after the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, a prominent Japanese Buddhist temple in Maui, was consumed in the most lethal U.S. wildfire in over 100 years, its residing minister, the Rev. Ai Hironaka, was eager to return to assess the damage. Now, six weeks later, his sentiment has shifted to hesitance.

“I find I must mentally brace myself before going back,” Rev. Hironaka remarked. “There is a degree of trepidation.”

As authorities in Maui prepare to facilitate restricted, supervised reentry to the disaster-stricken areas next week, Hironaka and other Lahaina residents are navigating a complex emotional landscape. The fire, which occurred on August 8, claimed at least 97 lives and reduced thousands of structures to ruins.

Lana Vierra is steeling herself to confront the wreckage of her once six-bedroom family home.

“We are mentally getting ready for this,” she explained, adding, “I’m not sure our hearts are adequately prepared.”

The authorities have segmented the charred region into 17 primary zones and multiple sub-zones. The first batch of residents and property owners—designated as Zone 1C and located along Kaniau Road in northern Lahaina—will be granted supervised access on Monday and Tuesday.

Federal and local agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the highways division of Maui County, are involved in preparatory work for reentry. Tasks include the removal of hazardous material, structural safety assessments, and road clearance.

Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator for Maui Emergency Management Agency, stated that essential provisions such as water, shade, washing facilities, portable restrooms, and both medical and psychological support will be available for returning residents. They will also be given personal protective equipment due to potential exposure to dangerous substances like asbestos, lead, and arsenic.

“Our aim is to assist residents while also affording them the personal space they need for closure,” Oliveira said in a video message.

Although some may wish to search the ash for personal items, authorities are strongly discouraging this action due to the risk of dispersing toxic dust that could pose dangers to themselves and downwind neighbors.

Melody Lukela-Singh is planning to enroll in a hazardous materials course prior to visiting her Front Street property, where her house once stood.

“I aim to understand the risks associated with exposure to unknown substances,” she stated. “Airborne hazards remain a concern.”

Hironaka revealed that his enthusiasm for returning has waned over time, as the full scope of the losses, including the temple and his home within its compound, have become increasingly real.

“At first, it was as if I had a full tank of gas. Now, it’s like pushing an empty car by myself,” he said, capturing the essence of his emotional depletion.

In his escape from the blaze, Hironaka had harbored hopes that the temple would somehow shield their home. In subsequent conversations, he has been deeply moved, often breaking into tears when discussing his role as the temple’s caretaker.

Finding some comfort in Buddhist teachings, he is frequently haunted by an image circulated by the media showing the temple engulfed in flames. He likened the temple, erected in 1933, to a family member.

“It’s like looking at an end-of-life photograph,” he lamented.

The calamity also razed Lahaina’s two other Japanese Buddhist temples.

Jarom Ayoso, a long-term renter, is keen to revisit his destroyed property for the sake of closure. His son managed to capture video footage of the devastation the day after the inferno. Ayoso is especially anxious to see what remains of his restored vehicles, including a 1986 GMC Sierra pickup truck, as well as a motor he had recently built at a cost exceeding $13,000.

“For me, closure will only come when I can physically see the extent of the loss,” Ayoso concluded.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Lahaina wildfire reentry

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on how residents of Lahaina, Maui, are emotionally and mentally preparing themselves for a supervised return to their properties, which were devastated by a historic wildfire.

Who are the key individuals featured in the article?

The key individuals include Rev. Ai Hironaka, a minister at a Japanese Buddhist temple that burned down; Lana Vierra, a resident who lost her family home; Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator for Maui Emergency Management Agency; Melody Lukela-Singh, another resident planning a hazardous materials course; and Jarom Ayoso, a long-term renter eager for closure.

What measures are authorities taking for a safe reentry?

Authorities have divided the affected area into 17 zones and multiple sub-zones. Agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are involved in removing hazardous materials and ensuring structural and road safety. Support services like water, shade, washing facilities, and medical aid will also be provided.

What hazards do residents face upon reentry?

Residents could encounter a range of hazards including exposure to hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead, and arsenic. Ash and debris may also pose respiratory risks. Authorities are providing personal protective equipment to mitigate these risks.

How are residents preparing themselves for the return?

Residents are mentally bracing themselves for the emotional impact of seeing their destroyed properties. Some, like Melody Lukela-Singh, are even enrolling in hazardous materials courses to better understand the risks they might face.

What is the emotional state of the residents featured in the article?

The emotional states range from trepidation and hesitance to a desire for closure. Rev. Ai Hironaka, for instance, initially wanted to return but now feels afraid and depleted. Others, like Lana Vierra and Jarom Ayoso, are steeling themselves for the emotional toll of the devastation.

What was the extent of the damage caused by the wildfire?

The August 8 wildfire was the deadliest in U.S. history in over a century, claiming at least 97 lives and destroying thousands of buildings, including three Japanese Buddhist temples in Lahaina.

More about Lahaina wildfire reentry

  • Lahaina Wildfire Official Report
  • Maui Emergency Management Agency Updates
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Guidelines on Wildfire Aftermath
  • Emotional and Mental Health Support for Disaster Survivors
  • Handling Hazardous Materials After a Wildfire
  • Structural Safety Assessment Post-Wildfire
  • Personal Accounts of Lahaina Residents
  • Historic Importance of Lahaina’s Buddhist Temples

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JaneDoe September 22, 2023 - 8:00 am

Wow, this is heartbreaking. can’t even imagine what it must feel like for the residents to go back and see everything gone. Stay strong, Lahaina.

EmilyQ September 22, 2023 - 8:53 pm

Its amazing how Rev. Hironaka finds solace in Buddhism. Sometimes faith is the only thing that gets you through.

TomW September 23, 2023 - 3:39 am

The article does a good job of capturing the human element in all this devastation. Its not just about buildings and land, its about people’s lives turned upside down.

SarahT September 23, 2023 - 5:29 am

Melody taking a hazardous materials course is next level. It’s one thing to prepare your mind, but preparing for the actual risks? That’s being really proactive.

Mike_47 September 23, 2023 - 5:51 am

Darryl Oliveira and his team seem to be doing all they can. but dealing with the mental and emotional toll, that’s something no agency can really help with.


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