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Paradise or Hell? Maui Wildfire Kills Most in a Century

By: Kyle Xu

Imagine you were driving along a peaceful road or taking a walk outside for fresh air. Suddenly, you feel a hot wind ruffle your hair. A roar. As you turn, flames surround the trees beside you. You take a look up and see that your neighborhood is now encircled in tendrils of smoke and fire. It's burning to the ground.

That reality happened to thousands of people residing in West Maui. A fire broke out Tuesday morning in Lahaina and was initially “100% contained,” said officials, but what about that afternoon? It became a monster. The threat of wildfires was common knowledge, with the National Weather Service warning on August 4th of high fire danger and strong and gusty trade winds.

Hawaii does have a network of outdoor sirens, but none were activated that day, said a spokesman for the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Officials instead sent alerts through phones and television, but power outages seemed to have made it difficult to communicate.

Sefo Rosenthal was one of the victims. The gales pushed the flames with impossible speeds towards Rosenthal’s family and loved ones and thousands of unsuspecting residents and tourists. To be safe, many jumped into the ocean off Front Street, the heart of the historic town.

“There was nothing else to do. You can’t go left, you can’t go right, you can’t turn around,” Rosenthal, 37, recalled. “The only thing left to do is go into the water.”

Rosenthal and his family were spared from the burn area. But his grandfather’s house, built in 1972, was scorched to the ground. His aunt escaped, barely able to see through the smoke.

But some were not as fortunate. A friend that they had known since they were little kids died in her car with her son, said Rosenthal. After adding a long pause, he said, “and her parents.”

One anonymous woman told The Times in a phone interview that she was home that day at her apartment in Lahaina when she smelled smoke. Her neighbors remained stubborn, but she fled the neighborhood anyway. As she was driving along the road, the fire surrounded her, so she left her car and dove into the ocean.

She noticed many others swimming in the water with panicked faces. But she knew that back in her apartment complex, hundreds must’ve died.

The destruction in Maui has reached a breathtaking scale, with officials saying that 93 people have died and 1,000 remain unaccounted for. The Maui fires, as they called them, are now the deadliest in the U.S. for the last century, even surpassing the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise, killing 85.

Dogs searched the rubble for human bodies. 2,200 structures had fallen to the blaze. To rebuild, the Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimate it will cost more than $5.5 billion.


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