Scott Kirby remembers how, just a couple of months ago, he sat with friends on the beach at Pohaku Park, a one-acre park in Maui with a gorgeous view of the ocean.
“My friends and I would sit at the bench over there and talk about our day and enjoy the sunset,” he said.
Today, Pohaku Park has taken on a new role. It has become a beacon of hope for the hundreds of families devastated by the recent wildfires.
Scott Kirby and his wife, Dana, are Florida natives. Both grew up in South Florida, graduated from the University of Florida, and built their careers in the state before moving to Maui more than 20 years ago with their then 6-month-old son.
In Maui, they put down roots on the island, raising their son and building Outrageous Surf, a surfing school and gear rental shop in historic Lahaina.
“We worked in that shop every day for 10 years,” Kirby said, “and then we walked down and saw the devastation the next day.”
Kirby said the warning signs were brewing before the devastating fire began.
“The day of the fire,” Kirby said, “I had surf classes scheduled, but I canceled all the surf classes because I knew that there was going to be a very strong wind. It’s probably the only day in the last 10 years I didn’t go.”
Kirby describes the events of that day:
“My wife wakes up at six in the morning. She likes to drink coffee. The power was out here where we live. So she gets in the car. She drives five miles… she notices that there’s smoke… This is 6 a.m. She looks to the right where the grocery store has a notice that their power is out as well. So, she turns around, drives back home, doesn’t really think much of it. Again, we don’t go to Lahaina because I know there’s very strong winds and there’s absolutely no way that I can do my surf lesson. So, I sit here at [Pohaku] Park and kinda cry all day because I have nothing to do. Little do I know what’s going on behind us.”
Lahaina is located in the northwest part of the island of Maui. It is a city with a tremendously rich history. Homes that are hundreds of years old, 60 different historical sites, and ties to ancient Hawaiian royalty.
Lahaina has become a popular tourist destination, thanks to boasting some of the best beaches and snorkeling spots in Maui. In Hawaiian, the word Lahaina means “merciless sun,” a name that seemed like the opposite of what life in the beachside community was. That was, until last month.
Dr. Raelene Crandall, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Florida and the lab principle investigator of the Ecology on Fire research team, had visited Hawaii a week prior to the wildfires.
When exploring the island, she said she recalled thinking “This is waiting for a wildfire.” She said that for a wildfire to spread, you would need a combination of weather, strong winds, and fuels.
“All you needed was a spark,” she said.
One week later, on Aug. 8, a series of wildfires broke out across the state of Hawaii, but most predominantly on the island of Maui.
Over 17,000 acres of land have burned, with an estimated $6 billion in damage. Where homes and businesses once stood, there is nothing more than a pile of ash. Outrageous Surf School, located on Front Street, was one of over 2,000 buildings destroyed. That was the Kirby family business.
By 4 p.m., Kirby said he received an emergency alert on his phone.
“The text says the fire in Lahaina has been contained,” said Kirby. “I thought, that’s great news. Meanwhile, I can still see smoke… but I’m far enough away from the fire that I have no idea what’s going on. By 5 p.m., if you’re on Front Street, you’ve been burned by the fire.”
“An hour after, they sent us a text that says the fire is contained, you guys are all good; you’re dead on Front Street.”
Crandall said one of the main culprits for the rapid spread of the wildfires was Guinea Grass.
“Guinea grass is an invasive species [to Hawaii] that dries out and burns very fast,” said Crandall. The grass acted as powerful fuel for the fire, lighting new fires ahead faster than expected, she said.
In Lahaina, Kirby described the scene as pure chaos. Fires raging, cars exploding, and fireballs in the sky. According to Kirby, the police were blocking Front Street to prevent people from getting out. They were blocking people from leaving, preventing people from going to help.
“You couldn’t get past them because cars were lined up,” Kirby said. “It’s one street that goes along the ocean.”
“I know that you’re not blocking something more dangerous from coming in than a fire that’s 500 feet tall that’s gonna burn you alive in two seconds, so I’m not sure why you block that path because what’s more dangerous than the fire that’s gonna come?”
From start to finish, Kirby said what happened that day was a failure. There were no warnings, alarms, or water control, despite the impending signs of danger the Kirbys saw with their own eyes. It “stinks from beginning to end, nothing seems right,” said Kirby.
But the fires themselves were just the beginning. When Kirby first returned to see what was left of Outrageous Surf, he was greeted with nothing but ash.
“It was singing hot, like a war zone after a bomb was dropped,” he said. Kirby said he was only able to rescue a cat from the ashes.
“It would be like if Miami burned down. Not just part, the entire city.” That’s how Kirby described the devastation in Lahaina. “Artefacts, monuments, graves, all destroyed.” And with the vast majority of the island not having fire insurance, people’s lives and finances are in shambles.
The death toll for the fires currently sits at over 115. Kirby believes that the number is far from accurate. He claims there are hundreds of homeless people who used to wander his area that he has not seen for weeks.
The people who have survived the fires are living day-to-day. “Everyone is still so shellshocked,” he said. But the local community is doing everything they can to help, from private schools enrolling kids for free to people donating old toys for kids to play with.
All while over 250 families are being put up in hotels that opened their doors to locals. Kirby said he knew he had to help.
Working with his friends, family, and members of the Lahaina community, Kirby has transformed Pohaku Park into a resource center for victims of the wildfires.
The resource center has been a beacon of hope for the community, providing water, diapers, doctors, and even mental health experts to those in need.
Kirby says the resource center has been helping anywhere between 200 to 300 families a day. And those who can help are doing their part as well.
“People check in with us every day,” said Kirby. “These farmers, these nice people, these people that bring us ice… they check in with us, and we almost give them a list like they’re our distributors.”
The center is being funded through private donations, mostly through donated goods, with no aid from the government. “There’s only $700 per family to each house,” he said, “that’s not enough.”
The biggest help, he said, has come from the other islands. Gas, medicine, jet skis, and boats, were all among the items sent from Moloka‘i and Oahu.
Kirby’s biggest concern is what happens once the aid runs out.
“What happens when these people are kicked out of the hotels?” he asked. “FEMA is controlling what’s left of these people’s land…and people don’t have anywhere to earn money. You can’t expect people to hold out for five years on nothing.”
The other concern he has is opportunistic billionaires and land developers taking over the city.
“Everyone is up in arms, trying to secure their land to protect their little homes and what’s left, while developers are coming in,” Kirby said.
There are generations of people with old houses and little income, who simply cannot rebuild with the money they have on hand. FEMA is offering displaced people money, according to Kirby, but only with loans against their property.
“The government isn’t providing, there are no clothes on people’s backs,” he said.
The goal for now is to gain as much private funding as possible, Kirby said. He has been reaching out to anyone who will listen to him: news organizations, universities, even football teams. Unfortunately, Kirby said success has been minimal, with places like the University of Florida not even returning his calls.
Kirby has also set up a GoFundMe, but it has not garnered the traction he had hoped for, raising only $6,000 out of a $250,000 goal.
But that is only the beginning, Kirby said. He is working to set up a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to encourage larger donations from businesses and corporations. But at the end of the day, he said the goal is to get the money to the people who need it.
Despite all the devastation, Kirby still considers himself one of the fortunate ones. All he claims to need to rebuild his business are surfboards and the ocean.
If you owned a restaurant or a clothes store, “you’re done,” as he put it. Kirby said he believes the city will be closed for five years while the damage is cleared and rebuilt.
For the families who have built lives here over generations, the next chapter will be about survival. And for the Kirbys, that means continuing their fight to support the Lahaina community.
“I can’t save everybody,” Kirby said, “but if I could save one, two, three, four, however many people from having to leave this place and help them, then that’s my goal.”