Bee reporter visits doomed Hawaiian city 3 days earlier than fireplace

A wildfire burns out of control in Lahaina on Maui on Wednesday.

A wildfire burns uncontrolled in Lahaina on Maui on Wednesday.


Editors note: Sacramento Bee congressional reporter Gillian Brassil was visiting Maui when a catastrophic wildfire struck. This is what she saw.

My partner Nate wanted a tattoo while we were in Hawaii. We didn’t think we’d be one of the last people to see the spot he chose.

The parlor told him to come in as soon as possible for a consultation, so we drove straight to Lahaina from the Kahului Airport last Saturday (Aug. 5). The roadway was gorgeous: ocean to our left and lush mountains. Hiking for him, swimming for me. Perfect. Paradise.

Blue Hawaii Tattoo & Piercing Maui was steps away from shop-lined Front Street in what used to be the Hawaiian kingdom’s capitol — and what was, that Saturday, a flourishing hub that fueled local businesses, housed families and showcased Maui’s culture and togetherness.

Nate picked his tattoo design as I watched tourists pour in. The artists were kind, accommodating — showed a strong sense of Ohana: They flowed together, a family, taking over for one another in a seamless operation.

We confirmed that we’d come again the following Friday (Aug. 11) for Nate’s appointment.

I hope they’re okay.

I wasn’t on reporter duty in Lahaina. I didn’t turn on the local news when we got to our hotel at the south edge of Kihei, normally one of my favorite things to do. On Monday, as we drove the full loop of the famed Road to Hana, my throat had a familiar dryness. The sun set around the time we passed Kula, a gorgeous, foreboding orange sky.

On Tuesday, we smelled smoke before we saw it. A spa owner told us about the fire. By the afternoon, there was a sign that something was very wrong — an uptick of bees flying from West Maui toward our hotel.

Smoke pools in the air from fires burning on Maui as the sun sets in Kihei on Tuesday.
Smoke swimming pools within the air from fires burning on Maui because the solar units in Kihei on Tuesday. Gillian Brassil

I lived in California from 2011 to the end of 2019. When I see photos of Lahaina, I think of Paradise. The 2018 Camp Fire that ravaged Northern California burned it to the ground in the deadliest wildfire in California history.

When I drove past Paradise in 2019, I saw the type of pain that comes with great loss — how to recover, navigate the uncertain and understand that other people might endure the same horrors that you have.

Speaking to Paradise residents almost five years later, I heard the town was about 20% rebuilt.

For Maui, I don’t know what to expect.

Tourists in Kihei went about their business with the cinder smell in the air. We stopped at a local grocer, Tutu’s Pantry, Tuesday as the shopkeeper received a phone call from family who escaped a fire. Phone service and power had been out for many people on Maui because of high winds and fires, making evacuation plans and communication difficult.

We packed our bags and kept them by the door, ready for an evacuation at a moment’s notice. As a firefighter’s daughter, I always look for ways out. Here there were three. One of them was running for the ocean, an option many others were forced to take. We found charred wood floating ashore when we went to the nearest beach.

Nate and I weren’t told to evacuate nor seemed in immediate danger when we left Maui for Oahu Thursday. Getting to the mainland became secondary. We decided it was best to leave once more roads reopened and the winds slowed, in case a displaced family could make use of our hotel, in case fires worsened. Something that could become the norm with rising global temperatures.

But we didn’t head straight to the airport after scrambling to find flights. The soonest was 12 hours away, and Nate still wanted his tattoo.

So that’s what we did at Paradise Tattoo in Kihei. Jesse Parliman, the artist, had seen the Kula fire from his house. A friend of Matt Diehl, the owner, came in to get clothes — they lost everything in the Lahaina fire.

An artist from Lahaina came in seeking work, and he won’t be the only one Diehl expects. Eight tattoo parlors in Lahaina burned to the ground, he said.

Importantly, Parliman said, the island can’t withstand another intense shutdown. Maui thrives off of tourists.

“We can’t do another time like COVID,” he said.

I buy a Christmas ornament, preferably an angel, for my parents everywhere I travel. On that Saturday in Lahaina, I saw one that I wanted. The shopkeeper explained her mother made the unique angels infrequently — only when she felt blessed — so we should buy one now if we wanted it.

Of course I wanted one made from love by a mother in Lahaina. The shopkeeper placed a flower barrette over my left ear, explaining how the locals used them. We had promised to return.

While it’s best to stay away now so that locals can use much-needed resources, visitors should return when the people say they’re ready. For now, Maui needs support, including through donations to the Maui Strong Fund, Salvation Army, American Red Cross and more.

Nate and I were fortunate to see the Lahaina community. Because this story isn’t about us. It’s about the people who’ve lost businesses, homes and lives in an unprecedented fire in paradise, and how the world can come together to help them rebuild.

The iconic Banyan tree stands among the rubble of burned buildings in Lahaina on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2023, after a catastrophic wildfire swept through the town in Maui.
The long-lasting Banyan tree stands among the many rubble of burned buildings in Lahaina on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2023, after a catastrophic wildfire swept by means of the city in Maui. Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Occasions by way of TNS

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