On Maui, another fire is burning but capturing less attention than Lahaina
KULA, Hawaii — The fire that roared across the historic town of Lahaina last week was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. It's killed more than 100 people and the death toll continues to climb. But another fire is still burning on Maui.
About 25 miles away from the painstaking search for victims in Lahaina, scores of people are struggling with losses of their own in Kula.
The Upcountry Fire, as it's called, moved with explosive speed. The wind whipped it up a gulch behind Kyle Ellison's home on the edge of Haleakala National Park, one of Maui's natural gems. Ellison looked over to his wife and asked, 'do you smell that?'
"We looked behind us and we have smoke billowing out of the gulch a hundred yards behind us," Ellison said.
The wildfire quickly jumped to a cluster of homes nearby — including the one Ross Hart and his family have lived in for 36 years. "Sparks flew over. Looked like, wow, fire and brimstone. It was beautiful but dangerous," recalled Hart.
With several of his neighbors last Tuesday night Hart fought the flames hard with a mix of garden and fire hoses. And then the water pressure just died. Fountains of embers and choking smoke, he says, soon took over.
"As I watched the house start to catch fire in one corner I ran in the house, grabbed my guitar, threw it in the truck. And it was - gone."
Now, the house where Hart raised his four kids is just ash and debris. But there are hints of memories.
In the gray and black mess there was a bright blue rock in the rubble.
"Yeah it was a vase full of colored stone like marbles. It just melted all down and the colored stones are inside," Hart said.
This mountainside community in Kula is nestled around the volcano more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It boasts lush flora and fauna, rare species and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
But the rough terrain, with its winding gulches and forests, has made it much harder for firefighters to contain the blaze.
The fire, so far, has destroyed at least 19 homes - and dozens of other structures. Days after it started, firefighting helicopters still circle overhead, making run after run at a fire that has scorched some 700 acres.
Ross is now sleeping in a house owned by his church. This entire small community is mourning dead and missing friends in devastated Lahaina while also reeling from its own, less talked about losses.
"We just don't want to get forgotten. People like [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and stuff - we haven't even seem them yet," Ross said.
So just like in parts of West Maui, this community quickly kicked into gear creating its own relief effort... Local resident Niko Sena has been working long days giving away goods at a pop-up roadside tent.
"Canned foods, fruit, protein bars, diapers, ya know, feminine hygiene, uh, stuff. "
And water — because — complicating everything, the fire polluted the water supply here – as it did in parts of West Maui. The Kula community has been told not to use the water — for anything — because it likely contains benzine and other dangerous contaminants.
"We've been advised even not to turn the water on without ventilation and to not boil the water or anything because that expels the gasses," said Sena.
Ahead of possible storms next week, officials say they are considering cutting off power as a precautionary measure. That's something they did not do in Lahaina or in Kula last week.
Meantime the community in Kula says it will continue to rely on itself.
Deanne Fitzmaurice is a Pulitzer Prize winning documentary photographer and visual storyteller based in the San Francisco. She previously worked for The San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years. Follow Deanne on Instagram @deannefitzmaurice.
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