WAILUKU >> The Hoopai family had just moved from Kahului into a unit at the Ka Hale A Ke Ola homeless center in Lahaina in May and was hoping to extend their stay past mid-August when they found themselves without shelter once again — forced to flee from the deadly wildfire that ripped through the West Maui community Tuesday.

After spending the night in the Walmart parking lot in Kahului, B Hoopai, 55; her husband Norman, 56; son Daniel, 29; and Daniel’s two daughters, Jezzie, 19 months, and Zori, 9 months, were getting ready to settle in for the evening Wednesday at a county evacuation center set up at War Memorial Gym in Wailuku.

B Hoopai said she got a call from her son around 3 p.m. Tuesday about the quickly spreading fire in the hills above Lahaina. “He said, ‘Mom, you need to grab my kids and leave. You have less than 10 minutes,” she recalled.

The family quickly packed up and headed for the designated evacuation center at Lahaina Civic Center, but found the road blocked, and when they tried to leave Lahaina heading in the opposite direction, the highway had been shut down. Uncertain what to do, they headed to Front Street and parked at a commercial center as conditions worsened.

“We were like sitting ducks, like lab rats in cages with nowhere to go,” she said.

“While sitting there I just reached out and prayed to God and said, ‘You need to get me and my family out of here,” Hoopai recounted, her voice breaking.

After circling the neighborhood five times, “God told me to go!” and, sure enough, Hoopai said, she found a clear path out of town toward safety, reaching Kahului just before 11 p.m.

As she was describing her family’s ordeal, two county officials approached to ask if they would be interested in temporary housing that a Wailuku man was offering at his home to a displaced family.

When good Samaritan Jason Porta was brought in to meet them, Hoopai smiled broadly and said, “Thank you so much. We’re the Hoopai family.”

Not too far from where the Hoopais were packing up their things to leave, Julius Limbaga was lying quietly on a cot while registered nurse Savannah Hupe, who was volunteering at the shelter, changed the bandages on his face, arm, legs and torso where he had been burned the previous evening while trying to escape the inferno in Lahaina.

Limbaga, 38, said he had just woken up from a nap when he smelled smoke in his Lahaina apartment.

“The fire was so fast and in just a blink of an eye it was everywhere,” he said, adding he had no choice but to douse himself in water and make a run for nearby Lahaina Harbor, his rubber slippers melting from the heat on the way.

He was rescued from the harbor waters by a U.S. Coast Guard crew and was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center with second-degree burns. Limbaga said he chose to discharge himself and stay at the county shelter so patients with more severe burns could be treated at the hospital.

Many other evacuees received care and attention Wednesday from Malama I Ke Ola Health Center staff and volunteers. The community clinic in Wailuku shut down for the day to provide services at four shelters on Maui.

At the county shelter, staff and health care volunteers offered medical evaluations and pediatric care, treated burn and smoke inhalation injuries, and provided “mental health first aid.” Health center CEO Dr. John Vaz said one of the biggest needs was obtaining prescription medications left behind in the rush to evacuate and making sure those with chronic illness didn’t worsen.

A behavioral health team, including volunteering psychologists and social workers, also was on hand as the magnitude of the events of the past two days began to take their toll.

“People are starting to come out of those first stages of shock,” Vaz said. “I noticed when they came in for the first few hours, most people didn’t say anything and just stood around with blank faces. But once they start eating and start to animate a bit more, the trauma is starting to come out.”

Vaz credited Mauliola Pharmacy for delivering medication to those whose preferred pharmacies had burned down.

An estimated 250 to 300 people were expected to spend the night at the American Red Cross emergency shelter in Kahului, either in their vehicles or on cots in the Maui High School gym, although as many as 1,200 had registered during the day to get food and other assistance.

One of the first to register Tuesday night was Gaku Fujita, 19, of Tokyo, and seven other family members who had been staying at the Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort in West Maui. After a power outage at their hotel, they decided to go shopping in Wailea in South Maui, driving out of Lahaina around 1 p.m. before the fires began raging.

Upon learning of the dire situation in Lahaina, Fujita said they tried to get a room at the Courtyard by Marriott near Kahului Airport, where “tons of people” had gathered. They were directed to the Red Cross shelter, and some members of the family slept in their van in the parking lot while others used cots in the gym.

Like other tourists on Maui, Fujita’s family was advised to leave the island immediately, but he said that won’t be possible until they can retrieve their belongings, including passports, from their hotel. They are due to return home Saturday.

“I’m glad we’re here,” he said Wednesday afternoon, praising the Red Cross volunteers and doctors who treated his grandfather, who has a heart condition. “If we were in West Maui it would be a whole ridiculous thing. The hotel doesn’t have power or phone batteries and we wouldn’t be able to contact our family. I already heard it was the first news in Japan.”

Also at the Red Cross shelter Wednesday was former Front Street resident Ingrid Lynch, who said she was asleep when roommate Miguel Martinez, 27, urgently woke her around 10:30 p.m. to say they had to leave the house. Her 2019 Honda Accord had burned earlier in the day, forcing them to flee on foot.

“We grabbed a blanket and covered ourselves to get out,” she recalled. “We tried to go toward the banyan tree toward the beach but we couldn’t go that way, so we turned around and we saw a couple of homeless people who didn’t know where to go either.

“We went past our house, and our house was on fire,” Lynch said. “We kept going and tried to stop a couple of cars and nobody would stop. We didn’t know where we were going. There were flames everywhere and we didn’t know what direction to go.”

Just at that time, Rich Kenny, 80, was headed out of Lahaina and spotted the pair at the corner of Front Street and Honoapiilani Highway at Puamana.

“I saw them and they looked desperate,” Kenny said.

The retiree had evacuated from his own house on Front Street around 7 p.m. and headed to a friend’s place a little farther south in Puamana to watch the fire burn across the highway from the deck on top of a neighbor’s carport until they were instructed to evacuate.

“The way the wind was blowing, I didn’t think it would come toward our neighborhood. But it was just out of control,” he said.

After picking up Lynch and Martinez, Kenny said they “made a mad dash toward Kihei.”

“The first quarter-mile there were flames on both sides of the highway and trees were down on the road,” he said.

Unable to book a hotel room, the three evacuees slept in Kenny’s vehicle Tuesday night at a park-and-ride lot at the entrance to Kihei. Wednesday morning they drove to the Kahului shelter, not sure of what comes next.

“We’ll just have to wait and see when we can get back in. If I can’t stay, there are friends who will take me in,” Kenny said.

For Lynch and Martinez, the future is more uncertain, as they both worked at Down the Hatch bar and restaurant at the Wharf Cinema Center Shops, which was destroyed in the blaze.

Sitting somewhat dazed on the lawn outside the Red Cross shelter, Alan Barrios said he found himself “in the eye of the storm” as one of the last tenants to evacuate Front Street Apartments on Tuesday.

The 53-year-old taxi driver managed to flee before flames consumed the 142-unit affordable rental complex on Kenui Place. He said he grabbed some important documents, personal tools and three of his four cats, forced to leave one of them behind after the animal panicked and ran off.

“Your heart is coming out of your chest, that’s all I can tell you. You feel like you’re running out of oxygen,” Barrios said.

He spent the night in his car at the Ross Dress for Less parking lot in Lahaina before rendezvousing with family members at the Red Cross shelter.

“I’m still trapped in the thought of yesterday, even now — like it’s happening right now,” Barrios said. “I never seen myself homeless and now I am.”


Star-Advertiser photojournalist Cindy Ellen Russell contributed to this report.

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