MAUI Fire: Shelter official: ‘It was pretty scary’

Maui Humane Society staff member Aurora Carlson bottle feeds a week-old kitten at the Maui High School parking lot. The shelter had to evacuate to the school after Thursday’s wildfire neared the shelter. Carlson said the evacuation happened “very fast.” The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

KIHEI — A wildfire that burned thousands of acres in Central Maui on Thursday morning triggered the evacuation of hundreds of north Kihei residents, stranded workers and tourists for several hours and uprooted around 200 Maui Humane Society animals.

“It was pretty scary. It looked pretty close,” described Nancy Willis, director of development for the Maui Humane Society, as she looked in her rearview mirror at the fire while evacuating around 200 animals from the Puunene shelter.

“Just that feeling,” she added of seeing the big plume of smoke.

Willis said the fire “looked so far away,” but then they got a call from the Fire Department to evacuate.

The call came at 1:30 p.m., about three hours after the fire began at 10:42 a.m., south of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road. It later jumped Kuihelani Highway and headed toward Maui Veterans Highway.

Dylan Bonick, who had donned his gas mask after living through fires in California, was taking shelter at Kamalii Elementary School. He is in the vehicle with Debby Lafata. The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo

With Maui Veterans Highway closed to traffic heading into Kihei on Thursday evening, Kihei and Maalaea residents were among those waiting at an emergency shelter set up at the War Memorial Gym in Wailuku.

Some hoped their homes were spared by the fire.

“I’m worried about my house and my kids,” said Kihei resident Marlina Johanes.

After accompanying her husband, Hirosy, on an MEO van to Central Maui for a doctor’s appointment Thursday morning, she couldn’t return home when the highway was closed.

The van dropped the couple off at the shelter, where dozens of people sat outside eating pizza Thursday evening.

A wildfire was burning about a 100 yards from Maui Veterans Highway on Thursday. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

The couple’s children, ranging in age from 11 to 19, were at home. “They’re OK for now,” said Hirosy Johanes.

Kihei residents Michael and Margaret Kinney also worried about how close the fire was to their rental home, which is north of Ohukai Road in the evacuation zone.

They were returning home from Lahaina when traffic slowed near Maalaea and the road to Kihei was closed.

“It looks terrible all around the harbor, where the fishpond is,” Michael Kinney said. “It’s all burning.

“I hope the whale center is OK, too,” he said. “You couldn’t even see anything, the smoke was so thick when we went by.”

(County officials reported Thursday night that no structures were damaged by the fire.)

The couple, along with their daughter and 15-year-old granddaughter visiting from San Jose, Calif., had gone to the beach in Kaanapali and had lunch in Lahaina before ending up at the shelter.

“We have beach chairs. We have beach towels. At least we have that much,”Margaret Kinney said. “This is not the vacation they planned.”

Maalaea resident Marilyn Knecht drove to the Wailuku shelter after she received an alert on her cellphone and police officers went to condominiums to evacuate residents.

“I couldn’t see the flames from my unit, but we have the dry cane fields right across the street,” Knecht said. “If the wind picks up and jumps the cane field, we’re done.”

As she was driving in on the highway, the fire was visible near Waiko Road, where it started, she said.

“It was still burning there,” she said. “You could see the smoke. Now you can’t see anything.”

By about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, about 85 people had checked into the War Memorial shelter run by American Red Cross volunteers, said interim shelter manager Marty Adler. He said his “guesstimate” was that the majority of people were tourists.

Arkansas resident Greg Cardin said he and his mother were at the shelter after American Airlines canceled its 6 p.m. flight to Dallas. He said they were told the crew couldn’t get to Kahului Airport because of the fire.

While some passengers chose to wait at the airport, Cardin said they decided to take the van provided by the airline to leave the airport, where the power was going on and off.

“It’s kind of cool here in the shade,” he said at the War Memorial shelter.

Cardin and his mother were ending a 16-day vacation on Maui and had left Kihei on Thursday morning before the fire started.

“It’s been a great vacation until now,” he said.

He said the canceled flight was rescheduled for this morning.

An Austrian tourist who was staying in Maalaea said she threw some belongings in a suitcase when visitors staying in the same complex told her she had to evacuate and drove her to the shelter. The woman, who declined to give her name, said her husband had gone to Kanaha Beach Park in the morning, and she hadn’t been able to reach him because of problems with her cellphone.

In Kihei, Janessa Keahi of Wailuku and twin brother, Jesse Keahi of Makawao were stranded when the road closed.

“We were trapped actually towards north Kihei. (We had) to reroute and turn around,” said Janessa Keahi.

“There was cops swerving around people along Piilani Highway to try to detour them to turn back around and come out here. So there’s absolutely just no way out right now,” Janessa Keahi, said, as the siblings were stuck at the Kamalii Elementary School shelter Thursday afternoon.

Also waiting out the fire at the Kamalii shelter was Dallas resident Thomas Herron’s family of seven, including children ranging in age from 5 to 19. The older ones “helped carry all the little ones carry all the luggage, they helped out a lot,” Herron said.

He said it was easy to get to the shelter, which was well organized and calm. “They have refreshments, everything you need here,” Herron said, adding that the family was “safe and sound.”

Dylan Bonick, who had donned his gas mask after living through fires in California, was taking shelter at Kamalii Elementary School.

“I know what smoke inhalation is,” said the 10-year resident of Kihei. “This is the real deal. I’m not taking any chances. People are going to feel sick in a couple of hours.”

Kihei resident Madge Schaefer was stuck across the street from Puunene Shopping Center, where cars were parked four or five deep. She said a mother with children said that she had to pee and was going to relieve herself behind her vehicle. At about 9 p.m., Schaefer had been waiting two hours to get back to Kihei.

It took less than an hour for the Maui Humane Society to evacuate its animals because people showed up to help even before a public call was made to assist.

Jerleen Bryant, CEO of the Maui Humane Society, said she was doing “OK”because the animals were doing OK, following the evacuation from the Puunene shelter to Maui High School in Kahului.

At least a hundred people, including shelter staff, volunteers and the public, were under banyan trees at the high school parking lot along with dozens of kennels and carriers for animals. This included the shelter vehicles.

“People were pouring in, (saying) ‘What can we do?’ “ Bryant said.

Willis said the evacuation was “very organized,” because they already had a plan in place.

As for what officials will do with the animals, Willis said early Thursday afternoon that they were awaiting a call from the Fire Department on the status of the shelter.

Makawao resident Julie Schurk drove to Maui High as soon as she could. She left with two kittens to foster. Humane Society officials said that some people were taking animals home but that they were not putting out a call for foster homes.

Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, said that after learning that Kahului Airport was shutdown at noon, she sent a bulletin to association properties to alert visitors to head to the airport extra early.

The bulletin also urged visitors to call their airlines to check on their flights.

Alex Da Silva, a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines, said guests holding tickets for travel on Thursday and today for flights arriving or departing out of Kahului and Kapalua airports can reschedule their travel without incurring change fees.

Re-booked travel must occur by next Thursday, he said.

Da Silva said that its inbound and outbound flights were operating Thursday afternoon.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com, Robert Collias can be reached at rcollias@mauinews.com and Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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