Maui officials highlight steps toward rebuilding as 1-year mark of deadly wildfire approaches

Hawaii Wildfire
Posted at 7:08 AM, Jun 27, 2024

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Nearly a year after wind-whipped flames raced through Kim Ball’s Hawaii community, the empty lot where his house once stood is a symbol of some of the progress being made toward rebuilding after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than century destroyed thousands of homes and killed 102 people in Lahaina.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” Ball said Wednesday as he greeted a van full of Hawaii reporters invited by Maui County officials to tour certain fire-ravaged sites.

The gravel covering lots on his street in Lahaina indicate which properties have been cleared of debris and toxic ash in the months since the Aug. 8, 2023, blaze. On the lots along Komo Mai Street, there are pockets of green poking up through still visible charred vegetation.

Speaking over the noise from heavy equipment working across the street, Ball described how he was able to get a building permit quickly, partly because his home was only about 5 years old and his contractor still had the plans.

Ball wants to rebuild the same house from those plans.

“We may change the color of the paint,” he said.

Nearby on Malanai Street, some walls were already up on Gene Milne’s property. His is the first to start construction because his previous home was not yet fully completed and had open permits.

When he evacuated, he was living in an accessory dwelling, known locally as an “ohana unit,” borrowing the Hawaiian word for family. The main home was about 70% done.

“I was in complete denial that the fire would ever get to my home,” he recalled. “Sure enough, when I came back a couple days later it was gone.”

It’s “extremely healing,” he said, to be on the site and see the walls go up for what will be the new ohana unit. Using insurance money to rebuild, he's “looking forward to that day where I can have a cocktail on the lanai, enjoy Maui — home.”

The construction underway at Milne's property is “a milestone for us,” said Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. “I think the rest of the community can use this as sort of a jumping off point, and say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it, too.’”

Even though it’s been nearly a year, rebuilding Lahaina will be long and complicated. It’s unclear when people displaced by the fire will be able to move back and whether they’ll be able to afford to do so. The county has approved 23 residential building permits so far and 70 are under review, officials said.

“We're not focused on the speed — we're focused on the safety," Bissen said.

Other stops of the tour included work underway at a former outlet mall that had been a popular shopping destination for both tourists and locals, and a beloved, giant 151-year-old banyan tree, now drastically greener with new growth thanks to the preservation efforts of arborists.

They cared for the sprawling tree with alfalfa and other nutrients — “mainly just water,” said Tim Griffith, an arborist who is helping care for the tree along Lahaina's historic Front Street. “Trees are ... going to heal themselves, especially when they're stressed.”

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