She died weeks after fleeing the Maui wildfire. Her family fought to have her listed as a victim.

by Ethan Kim
Wildfire Resilience

Sharlene Rabang, a resilient 78-year-old, faced a harrowing ordeal when she fled the Maui wildfire that consumed her hometown. Alongside her loyal calico cat, she embarked on a 24-hour journey, including a night spent in her car, to reach her family’s home on another Hawaiian island. However, Rabang’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly, characterized by dizziness, coughing fits, and overall weakness. Concerned for her health, her daughter sought medical assistance, suspecting asthma or the flu. Sadly, the reality was more devastating.

Tragically, Sharlene Rabang passed away nearly a month later, with her daughter by her side. She had a medical history marked by cancer, COVID-19, and high blood pressure. Initially, the attending doctor did not attribute her death to the wildfire, but it wasn’t until November that, under her family’s insistence, Honolulu’s medical examiner recognized that thick, black smoke from the wildfire had contributed to her demise.

This acknowledgement added Sharlene Rabang to the grim list of victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century. The August 8th blaze ravaged Lahaina, once the capital of Hawaii’s former kingdom, destroying approximately 3,000 homes and apartments as it raced through dry, invasive grasses, fanned by winds from a distant hurricane.

The tragedy underscores a growing trend: as climate change exacerbates natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, more people are exposed to these hazards. Vulnerable populations, including older individuals with limited ability to respond to danger and those with lower incomes, are disproportionately affected. Of the victims of the Maui wildfire, 60 were aged 65 or older.

For grieving relatives, the pain is compounded by the timing of these events, particularly around the holidays. Many share Lorine Lopes’ sentiments, Sharlene Rabang’s daughter, who firmly believes that her mother wouldn’t have perished if not for the fire.

Recent research in the western U.S. revealed a troubling trend: the number of highly vulnerable people residing within the perimeter of wildfires has more than tripled over the past decade. This demographic includes individuals who face physical or mental impairments that hinder their evacuation.

Recordings of 911 calls during the Maui wildfire emphasized the vulnerability of older residents. Desperate pleas for help, like one woman reporting an 88-year-old man trapped in a burning house, revealed the dire situations faced by many.

Some victims lived in a low-income senior apartment complex, underscoring the importance of considering the specific needs of these communities during evacuations. Louise Abihai, aged 97, was among those who perished, despite her strong and independent nature. Her great-granddaughter Kailani Amine questioned whether the Hawaiian values of caring for and respecting “kupuna” (elders) were overlooked during the chaos.

Efforts to mitigate these risks must include engaging communities to identify their needs, planning for transportation during evacuations, and developing communication strategies for vulnerable individuals. Erica Fleishman, the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, emphasizes the importance of committing resources and political will to assist these populations.

Sharlene Rabang, a petite woman with a resilient spirit, was alone at home when the fire struck. Her husband, Weslee Chinen, believed their home would once again escape disaster, as they had ignored evacuation warnings in the past. However, this time was different. Rabang’s son, Brandon, convinced her to leave as they felt the fire’s intense heat and inhaled the choking smoke.

Despite their evacuation, Rabang’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. She eventually succumbed to respiratory failure, anemia, and other conditions after a lengthy hospitalization, leaving her family devastated. Rabang’s death certificate initially failed to attribute her passing to the wildfire, leading to financial and emotional hardships for her family. Only after persistent efforts from her family did the medical examiner recognize the role of smoke inhalation in her death.

Sharlene Rabang’s inclusion on the list of wildfire victims was a hard-fought battle for her family, bringing both closure and grief. Her story serves as a poignant reminder of the profound impact of natural disasters on vulnerable populations, underscoring the need for comprehensive preparedness and response measures in the face of climate change-induced calamities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wildfire Resilience

What was the main cause of Sharlene Rabang’s death?

Sharlene Rabang’s death was primarily attributed to pneumonia and anemia, but a contributing factor was smoke inhalation from the Maui wildfire.

How did Sharlene Rabang and her cat escape the Maui wildfire?

Sharlene Rabang and her calico cat fled the wildfire by embarking on a 24-hour journey that included sleeping in a car, eventually reaching a family home on another Hawaiian island.

Why was Sharlene Rabang initially not listed as a victim of the wildfire?

Initially, the doctor did not attribute Sharlene Rabang’s death to the wildfire. It wasn’t until November, after her family’s insistence and the medical examiner’s review, that her death was linked to the thick, black smoke she had breathed while fleeing.

How did the Maui wildfire impact vulnerable populations?

The Maui wildfire, like many wildfires, disproportionately affected vulnerable individuals, particularly older people and those with diminished capacity to respond to danger. Of the victims, 60 were 65 or older.

What steps can be taken to reduce the risk to vulnerable populations during wildfires?

Efforts to reduce risk include engaging communities to identify their needs, planning for transportation during evacuations, and developing communication strategies for vulnerable individuals. Resources and political will are crucial in assisting these populations in the face of increasing wildfire risks.

More about Wildfire Resilience

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AwarenessAdvocate December 27, 2023 - 3:21 pm

climate change real, affecting seniors badly. must act!

Empathy4Families December 27, 2023 - 6:32 pm

family’s struggle for recognition, heartfelt.

SpellingBeeChamp December 27, 2023 - 7:17 pm

so many typos, hard 2 read. fix grammar please.

Reader123 December 28, 2023 - 5:19 am

wow, so sad. poor Sharlene & her cat. fire’s so dangerous.

ThoughtfulReviewer December 28, 2023 - 7:27 am

tragic story, many ppl suffering. need better prep for fires.


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