LAHAINA, Hawaii – It was an emotional day Monday for the Lahaina residents who were able to return home for the first time and sift through the rubble for any reminders of what life was like before one of the deadliest wildfires in modern U.S. history swept across portions of the Hawaiian island in August.
At least 97 people were killed, and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by the fire that forced residents to jump into the ocean to escape the inferno, while others remained trapped in their vehicles, unable to get to safety.
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"This is my childhood home, you know? I grew up here," Lahaina resident Tiara Wales told KHON-TV on Monday. "The feeling is, you know, accepting it. I’m going through grief, of course."
KHON reporter Nikki Schenfeld joined one of the families who were allowed to return home Monday after officials reopened the first zone cleared for residents and business owners to return.
"It’s good to have closure," Lahaina resident Dan Katayama said. "At least now I know it's gone now."
‘It's like endless ash'
Most areas of Lahaina remain off-limits to residents, who have been anxiously awaiting to return to see if their homes are still standing or if they could recover belongings that survived the inferno.
Katayama said he was hopeful he'd be able to find some of his family's belongings.
"It’s like endless ash," he said. "You know, there’s ashes everywhere, and you can’t find literally anything. On this property, we found some plates that survived. I don’t know how. And one earring in the whole two hours."
Wales said she was fearful of what would happen next for her family. She hopes the area can be cleared soon, so they can begin rebuilding.
"If this splits up the family, it’s going to be really hard," she said. "I don’t think I’ll be able to take that because I’ve lived with my family my whole life, you know? And I don’t know if my daughter and mom will end up leaving the island. I don’t want to leave."
Residents last week were allowed to apply for vehicle passes to re-enter the zone and were provided personal protective equipment to wear when combing through charred remains of structures.
Those who were allowed to return home had all day Monday and all day Tuesday to inspect what was left.
And for those who did return, support was provided, including water, shade, washing stations, portable toilets and medical and mental health care.
The wildfires on Maui occurred due to a combination of a few atmospheric conditions.
In addition to dry conditions, Hurricane Dora was spinning to the south of the Hawaiian islands in August, and dry conditions and a strong ridge of high pressure to the north helped to provide the 70-mph wind gusts that allowed the flames to rage out of control once they were ignited.