22/04/2024

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‘It’s just completely gone’ — Harrowing Lahaina fire escape for Bay Area vacationer

7 min read
‘It’s just completely gone’ — Harrowing Lahaina fire escape for Bay Area vacationer

Dave Hovis and his friends hardly noticed the advisories for strong wind gusts from faraway Hurricane Dora earlier this week as they enjoyed a relaxing vacation in a friend’s waterfront home at Baby Beach in Maui. The next day, they were ramming through a gate to escape the deadly wildfire that destroyed the resort town of Lahaina.

Their ordeal was among the many terrifying accounts from Bay Area vacationers and Maui residents with California ties who survived the blazes that killed more than 50 people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in a place so many knew as an island paradise.

Dave Hovis, from San Francisco, photographed the glow of the approaching fire from the Sheraton Hotel near Lahaina in Maui as the palm trees bend in the high winds on Tuesday evening, August 8, 2023. (Photo by Dave Hovis)
Dave Hovis, from San Francisco, photographed the glow of the approaching fire from the Sheraton Hotel near Lahaina in Maui as the palm trees bend in the high winds on Tuesday evening, August 8, 2023. (Photo by Dave Hovis) 

It started innocently enough Monday when Hovis, 32, a San Francisco technology startup company manager, and his vacationing friends secured the inflatable pool floats and other loose items but didn’t think much more about the winds.

“We were just hanging out in the pool and, like, boom! All this wind hit,” Hovis said Thursday in a telephone interview with the Bay Area News Group as he boarded a plane back to the Bay Area. “The hurricane was 600 miles south, so we thought, no big deal.”

But by Tuesday morning, electrical power and cellular service were out.

“We just hunkered down in the house,” Hovis said. “It just got smokier and smokier, and we thought ‘OK, it’s just like a brush fire kind of thing.’ And then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. We’re all Northern California guys. We realized the winds were driving the fire.”

Hurricane Dora passing hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands sent wind gusts across Maui at 60-80 mph that knocked out power Tuesday evening and grounded firefighting helicopters as fire crews battled multiple blazes around Lahaina and inland in the island upcountry.

By Wednesday afternoon, authorities said people were fleeing into the ocean to escape the flames. At least 53 died, making it the nation’s deadliest wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, near Chico.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday that the state is sending an urban search and rescue team and other resources to Hawaii. Hawaiian Airlines, which sponsors Saturday’s Bay Area Aloha Festival in San Mateo, said it will be seeking support for the Red Cross of Hawaii at the event by matching donated air miles.

Redwood City-based crowdfunding platform GoFundMe set up an online hub of verified accounts to support Maui fire victims. Many of them have Bay Area ties. Andrea Mazenko, of Fremont, set up one for her friend since high school, Jessika Haisley, who in a Facebook post described driving through thick smoke and flames with one of her sons to escape the blaze.

The only way out was a road between two burning restaurants with power lines lying across the road.

“Flames so high, so strong & so hot… black smoke so thick that we couldn’t even see in front of us,” Haisley wrote. She was panicked and hyperventilating but said her son Aiden told her they just had to try to go through the flaming power lines, “or we’ll die in the flames, there is no other way out.”

The fire marred a 10th wedding anniversary trip for Erica Ladiao and her husband of Fairfield, along with their kids and parents, who returned to the Bay Area at Oakland International on Thursday.

When power went out at their resort the staff handed out glow sticks for light and later told guests should prepare to evacuate. But the family decided not to wait around and spent the night on the road driving to the other side of the island, where they found a place to stay.

“All they kept telling us is the fire is getting close,” Ladiao said. She was heartsick when she saw the news of what happened to Lahaina, and struggled to keep her composure for the kids’ sake. “They woke up pretty scared. It was just really, it was awful. My heart is broken for Maui for sure.”

Even with the smoke growing thicker, Hovis and his friends didn’t realize at first how much danger they were in. They got an evacuation notice late Tuesday afternoon, packed their bags in their car and began spraying water on their friend’s house to protect it from the encroaching flames. When the blaze reached the end of their road, they joined others helping neighbors hose down their houses to protect them.

“Then we saw the palm trees go up,” Hovis said, and the smoke got so thick “we couldn’t breathe.”

They got to their car but, with the power out, a gate at the driveway wouldn’t open to let them out.

“We had to ram the gate to get out, which was kind of harrowing,” Hovis said. “It was pretty scary. There was lots and lots and lots of traffic, downed power lines everywhere, no cell service, just person-to-person information. No one knew what was going on. We were lucky to get out.”

Dave Hovis, a San Francisco technology startup company manager, leaves in an SUV after flying back from Maui to the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Wildfires, fueled by strong winds, have ravaged parts of Maui, the deadliest in the tourist town of Lahiana, where 36 people have perished.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Dave Hovis, a San Francisco technology startup company manager, leaves in an SUV after flying back from Maui to the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Wildfires, fueled by strong winds, have ravaged parts of Maui, the deadliest in the tourist town of Lahiana, where 36 people have perished.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The five vacationing friends spent the next several hours on gridlocked roadways trying to find a hotel away from the danger. They ended up at a Sheraton a mile or two away that let them stay overnight in its ballroom. The next day, with the main road in Lahaina closed, his friend’s father who owned the home where they’d been staying arranged for a fishing boat to pick them up and take them to another friend’s timeshare.

As the boat cruised along the shore, they passed by Baby Beach, where they’d been relaxing just a day before at the pool. Hovis said it reminded him of photos of villages destroyed in the Vietnam War.

“It was a beautiful property,” Hovis said, “but it’s just completely gone.”

Staff Photographer Ray Chavez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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