The power was out and the air-conditioning off when Dustin Kaleiopu woke up on Tuesday morning in Lahaina. As he opened the window, he understood what had knocked the power out.
But it was only later in the day, when he began to smell smoke in his house, that Mr. Kaleiopu started to realize the urgency of the threat the town faced.
“We were just putting two and two together,” he said, adding that emergency text alerts from local officials arrived late because of interrupted cell service. “So I went and sat in my car, turned on the radio, tried to listen. The updates weren’t coming in as fast as things were changing. So we didn’t know that we needed to actually evacuate until the fire had spread to my neighbor’s front yard.”
Like many in the town, Mr. Kaleiopu grew up Lahaina, a place with a rich history as a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, where generations of families lived together and locals knew each other by name.
But Lahaina changed in recent years, he said. Longtime residents struggled to afford homes. Investors bought up properties. Mr. Kaleiopu, who is of Native Hawaiian heritage, described a complicated relationship with the growing tourism industry, which provided him and others with jobs but sometimes strained local resources.
“The infrastructure is not made to handle that many people, and that’s the frustration: We wish that there was just safer tourism, that the island wasn’t so crowded, especially in times of crisis,” Mr. Kaleiopu said.
When the fire reached his neighbor’s yard, Mr. Kaleiopu said he loaded his grandfather into a car and began preparing to leave. The two made sure to grab their identification, but had no time to pack bags. He said he only went back inside to try to find his cat.
“We’re flipping the furniture over because the smoke was so thick — there was no electricity, no light in the house,” he said. “After what felt like an hour, it’s probably three to five minutes — my grandpa said, ‘He’ll make his way out, we’ve got to go.’”
After a slow drive across traffic-clogged roads, Mr. Kaleiopu and his grandfather made it to safety. But they soon learned that their home, a place that had been in the family for decades, was gone.
Mr. Kaleiopu has spent recent days with family in another part of Maui, a comfort that others do not have. But with limited housing options on the island, he said he might temporarily relocate to Honolulu.
Still, Mr. Kaleiopu said, there was no question that he would return to Lahaina, that he would carve out a new life in a rebuilt town. He had to, he said. It is home.