Air Force veteran Frank Perry, 69, had little warning of the flames sweeping toward his home, as strong gusts of wind drove devastating fires across the Hawaiian island of Maui on Aug. 8.
Perry was outside doing a relatively mundane task, taking out the garbage, when he noticed something burning on the horizon.
“I saw black smoke like a mile away,” Perry told Military Times. “Within minutes, the cops were there telling us to evacuate the house. There was no time to grab anything, except the clothes on our backs, ourselves and our 91-year-old mother.”
Hurricane Dora, which passed to the south of Hawaii, had whipped up winds that toppled more than 30 power lines across the island, according to the Associated Press. Many of the ground wires also were uninsulated, which likely sparked and spread the fires, the AP found.
Local firefighters responded to the blaze near Hawaii’s historic town of Lahaina, home to native Hawaiian Perry and his wife for the past seven years. The emergency crews contained the fire and left to battle other blazes, but the fire reignited. Those same strong winds that sparked the first fire fed its second coming.
More than 100 people have been declared dead, and more than 375 were still missing as of Aug. 31, according to Hawaii government officials. Search and recovery efforts ended this week, as emergency response teams had covered 100% of Lahaina. County officials said on Aug. 29 that the Lahaina fire remains 90% contained.
Around 7,600 veterans live in Maui County, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. The Department of Veterans Affairs told Military Times on Aug. 23 that they’ve been in contact with 138 veterans affected by the fires and offered direct assistance to four so far. Military Times spoke with three other veterans and a service member, who like Perry, lost homes or businesses or both.
Keeping the faith
Army 2nd Lt. Mark Zion, a chaplain candidate, was completing his annual Hawaii Army National Guard training on Aug. 8 when the fires swept into Lahaina. An insurance agent in his civilian life, he’d worked at the State Farm office in Lahaina for five years.
Coworkers had relayed that their office had lost power the day before, on Aug. 7, and the 37-year-old said he knew there were uncharacteristically high winds on the island. The Weather Service Forecast Office in Honolulu said wind speeds on the island that sped the fire’s growth clocked in between 45 and 67 miles per hour.
“I heard there was some wildfire happening outside of the town, and everybody on our agency team that I was communicating with, they didn’t have to evacuate,” Zion told Military Times. “In the morning, when I woke up, I’ll never forget my wife saying, ‘Lahaina burned down.’ And I said, what do you mean Lahaina burned down?”
Zion’s insurance office was one of the more than 2,000 structures destroyed in the blaze, but it was worse for other Guardsmen who lost entire homes or had family who lost homes, he said. Still, Zion said, many of those troops volunteered in the recovery efforts.
“That’s my encouragement and inspiration ... these guys that lost everything, and they’re the ones who say, ‘I’m wanting to volunteer, and I want to be on this mission,’” Zion said.
“They’re keeping my faith strong,” he later added.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the Adjutant General of Hawaii, said Thursday that 10 Guardsmen had either lost homes or businesses in the fires. Another six Guardsmen had other family members who were impacted, he said.
Zion had his first day of rest since the fires on Aug. 27 — working more than two weeks straight like many of his fellow service members. That nonstop pace makes the chaplain candidate wonder: when emergency responders and victims finally have a chance to sit with and absorb the loss, will there be an even larger need for their spiritual support from the chaplain corps?
The federal response
The Hawaii National Guard joined the Coast Guard and other first responders, as the flames were racing across the island. Coast Guard boat crews fished 17 survivors out of the water and located another 40 on shore, Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Trenton Brown told Military Times. Some of the residents were forced to jump into the sea and shelter in the waves for hours, as walls of flames blocked any escape by land.
In the days that followed, the Coast Guard switched from rescue to searching for victims that possibly drowned trying to escape the fires.
As the early days of crisis turned into the long weeks of recovery, the Pentagon dispatched reserve and active duty troops as part of Joint Task Force 5-0. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put the task force under the command of Hawaii Army National Guard ‘s Brig. Gen. Stephen Logan.
At the height of the military response, 725 Defense Department personnel and 136 Coast Guardsmen were contributing to the federal emergency response, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Aug. 24. The Army’s 25th Infantry Division, based at Oahu’s Schofield Barracks, brought tactical truck fuelers that helped keep 18 generators from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operating. The U.S. Pacific Fleet also dispatched a three-person global diving salvage unit to continue recovery efforts.
The Coast Guard has continued their own recovery operations and assessed the environmental impact of the fire on the waters around Lahaina and its harbor. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Trenton Brown told Military Times that around 50 boats with varying amounts of fuel were in Lahaina’s harbor at the time of fires. The service has “boomed” the harbor, putting a large plastic barrier in the harbor to keep any harmful substances from making its way into the ocean.
Displaced and underinsured
More than 4,500 people displaced by the blaze stayed in hotels around Lahaina on Wednesday, according to a Maui County update. Many are underinsured, including the Perrys and other veterans Military Times reached. The price for appropriate levels of insurance, Perry said, was “crazy.”
Cleanup efforts will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a news briefing on Aug. 18. Nearly 2,200 buildings were completely destroyed in an estimated cost of $6 billion in damages.
There was already a housing and homelessness crisis on the island. Hawaii has the fifth largest homeless population per capita in the U.S., according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Native Hawaiians like Perry, according to the organization, are the largest group per capita in the U.S. impacted by the housing crunch.
Perry, his wife, Val, and her mother are now living in a condominium provided by FEMA. They’re not sure what comes next. One bit of good news: the Air Force veteran has been able to coordinate with the local Veterans Affairs clinic to get his medications.
And the couple is about to mark a significant milestone: their 50th wedding anniversary on Sept. 1. Val Perry said they are grateful to have escaped the fires. But the totality of the loss, including photo albums from those decades together, is something the couple is still trying to accept.
To help veterans impacted by the Maui fires, contributions can be sent to registered charitable organizations like the Hawaii Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund, HCF EIN 99-0261283, https://www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/strengthening/maui-strong-fund, or via the VA at https://www.cdceportal.va.gov/donate_online/
You can follow the Perrys’ progress on GoFundMe.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.