IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Maui residents escaped wildfires with little more than their lives

“We were fine the day before, and now we’re homeless, jobless,” a Lahaina tattoo artist and DJ said. “No one knew it was coming.”
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Charred palm trees gently swayed as Patrick Sullivan stood in the rubble Thursday of what was once his family’s home on Maui.

He choked back tears while surveying the damage from a hurricane-fueled wildfire that tore through Lahaina on Tuesday afternoon, destroying a historic center and tearing apart an idyllic beachfront community.

Asked what remains of his 2,000-square-foot home, he simply said: "Nothing. Nothing."

Sullivan is among the thousands of people who have been displaced by the fires, which have killed at least 53 people and damaged or destroyed about 270 structures.

The toll could rise as search-and-rescue crews continue to sift through the rubble. 

Officials say it could be weeks before a complete picture of the devastation fully emerges. 

On Tuesday afternoon, hours before Sullivan evacuated his home, Travis Sheffield raced to help his neighbors flee their houses and apartments in a hilly section of Lahaina, near where the wildfire first raced towards the ocean.

Tree limbs snapped and shingles blew off rooftops as the former West Coast resident rushed to warn neighbors.

He had never experienced a fire as ferocious as the one that swept through the island community this week, one of six fires burning on Maui and the Big Island.

“This was way faster than any wildfire I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was hurricane winds but no rain. First responders didn’t have masks or full fire equipment on.”

Embers whipped all around him. Neighbors abandoned their cars and fled to safety on foot. As the sky darkened and flames swept down the hill, a tree branch hit Sheffield in the leg. He suspects his ankle might be broken, but there was no time to seek medical attention. 

“People were getting choked out,” said Sheffield, who worked at the now-destroyed restaurant owned by Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood. “We got nine of us out, and now we’re just waiting.”

Fueled by an unusually dry summer and strong winds from Hurricane Dora, the fire took Maui by surprise when it erupted Tuesday, racing through parched growth and neighborhoods in the historic town of Lahaina, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

More than a mere tourist destination, Lahaina holds deep cultural significance for Hawaiians. The city was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha III, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs. 

Kings and queens are buried in the graveyard of the 200-year-old stone Wainee Church. Later named Waiola, the church, which once sat up to 200 people, was photographed this week apparently engulfed in flames.

People waiting for departing flights at Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where at least three wildfires have been raging, in Kahului on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.
People waiting for departing flights Wednesday at Kahului Airport in Maui. Philip Cheung / The New York Times via Redux

Lahaina resident Dustin Kaleiopu reluctantly fled the house that had been in his family for four generations. 

The family escaped with just the clothes on their backs and struggled to reunite with loved ones amid downed telephone lines and confusing information that trickled in more slowly than the flame devouring his hometown.

“We didn’t want to accept that ours was going to be next,” Kaleiopu told NBC's Tom Llamas. “But we knew the smoke was getting closer. The wind was howling.”

Rushing to help him into the car, Kaleiopu left behind his 82-year-old grandfather’s medication and important documents, as well as a kitten that remains missing. 

“There’s nothing to go back to,” Kaleiopu said. “My family is thinking about leaving the island completely. Everything is gone.”

For Andre “Leone” Burton, a Lahaina tattoo artist and DJ, living in Maui had been a dream seven years in the making after he visited the island for the first time. Burton, an Ohio native, said he felt immediately drawn to Maui and waited until what seemed like the perfect time to move from Cleveland. He was still getting used to swimming in the ocean when tragedy struck.

He had been living in Lahaina for just a year before the fire destroyed his car, apartment and tattoo equipment. The shop where he practiced his trade was also destroyed. Its owner lost not just his business, but also his home and pets, Burton said.

“We were fine the day before, and now we’re homeless, jobless,” he said. “No one knew it was coming.”

Earlier in the day, Burton and his friends joked about having a hurricane party. He expected businesses to be closed but not to have to flee his new home with nothing but his cat, a tabby named Burger. 

Burton took up shelter at a friend’s home with Sheffield and seven other people. None have been able to return to their homes to survey the damage.

“We’re all just disheveled and tired, lost, confused,” he said. “I really don’t want this to be the reason I move back to Ohio.”

Aerial video from Lahaina showed dozens of homes and businesses razed, some of them on Front Street, where Burton worked and where tourists once gathered to shop and dine. 

Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbor were scorched, and gray smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.

Communications were spotty on the island, with 911, landline and cellular service failing at times. Many roads remained blocked, preventing residents from returning to their neighborhoods as crews worked day and night to make repairs. 

Many relatives monitored shelter lists, calling hospitals and frantically posting on social media for loved ones who had not surfaced since the fire spread. 

On Thursday, California resident Susan Mattera was waiting for news about her adult son, Matt Mattera, who had just moved to Maui on Sunday after an unexpected divorce and had not been heard from in days. 

There were unverified reports that he had been found, but no further details were available.

Earlier in the week, Mattera frantically posted photos and messages on social media in hope of finding him. She also added his name to a list of missing people maintained by the Red Cross. 

“We want to know that you’re safe,” she said when she was asked whether she had a message for her son. “I know you’re trying to get ahold of us. I know you are. Just like we’re trying to get ahold of you. Be strong, my boy.”