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Burlingame students witness tragedy of Maui fires

One morning during her stay in Maui, junior Sofia Crosina headed to downtown Lahaina for coffee. Nearly all businesses were closed due to a power outage, so island residents and tourists alike queued in front of the only open ABC convenience store. While waiting in line, Crosina overheard snippets of conversations about damaged homes and falling trees. Soon, she realized that she was in the midst of an emerging fire.

“There was a man talking about how his roof fell off to another local,” Crosina said. “It was so real seeing all these disasters happening so close to me in a community.”

Crosina was witnessing firsthand the destructive  Maui fires. According to NBC, the flames first began expanding uncontrollably on Aug. 8, taking a total of 97 lives. The fire practically obliterated Lahaina, prompting hundreds of residents to seek refuge as the historic town went up in flames. Following the incident, rescue teams spent days searching through the debris of the once lively town.

“It not only affected the people in Lahaina, but the whole island was affected,” Crosina said. “Houses were damaged, there was no power and everyone was lined up at the grocery stores, people who needed groceries seriously couldn’t get them.”

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Fortunately, Crosina’s hotel was roughly three miles away from the fire, keeping her out of harm’s way. But the fires quickly created other extreme weather, felt across the island. Among concerns were the strong winds, which peaked at 45 to 67 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

“I went down to the pool for about two hours but the winds were too strong and I kept on getting hit by sticks and leaves,” Crosina said. “Trees were blowing like crazy, it was so scary.”

Sophomore Bella Miranda wasn’t as fortunate, losing her house and possessions to the fire. Miranda and her family hoped to unwind on the trip, but on the fourth day of their vacation, their Airbnb in Lahaina caught fire. The house and all of the family’s belongings were destroyed in the fire.

“I was honestly shocked because when I got the information that everything had burned down, it didn’t really feel real,” Bella Miranda said. “I still thought that I was going to come back to the Airbnb and find all of my clothes and makeup intact.”

Soon after learning the news, the Miranda family accepted their material loss, realizing that their discomfort paled in comparison to the loss of life and livelihood across the island.

“When you see the local people losing their houses and lives, some pants and watches and jewelry [don’t matter anymore],” said Dany Miranda, Bella’s father. “It doesn’t make any sense to be mad about that because you see everybody losing their lives.”

Although the physical impact of the fires was most obvious, they also triggered emotional loss. Former Burlingame student Michaela Nee and her family relocated to Lahaina in 2021, seeking a change of scenery during the pandemic-induced lockdown.Throughout her stay, Nee formed a number of fond memories and said that Lahaina continues to be a second home of hers.

“I would say it’s almost as extreme as if a fire were to happen in Burlingame,” Nee said. “[Maui] was a home for me for a good period of time and even when I wasn’t actually living there I visited a lot. Now that I don’t really have that second home, that impact is tremendous.”

Additionally, Nee established various close relationships while in Maui. In the aftermath of the fires, she watched as many of those friends grieved the loss of  community members

“Having to watch [my friends] grieve the ones they lost through the fires is the hardest part for me,” Nee said. “That’s the biggest impact: watching the people I love suffer through this and not being able to help them because I’m so far away.”

No matter the hardship Maui locals face, Nee believes their strong sense of community will ultimately keep them moving forward. In commemorations of individuals who perished in the fires, Nee describes the traditional Hawaii ceremony, known as a paddle out, performed by her friends.

“When someone dies in a surfing accident or a natural disaster everyone takes their surfboards and you paddle out together in the ocean in remembrance,” Nee said. “They did the same in Maui just to acknowledge what’s happening and as a community try to move forward.”

This story was originally published on The Burlingame B on September 19, 2023.