Devastation on Maui Hits Frequent Visitor, Jim Byers, Hard

My Dad and I under the banyan tree in Lahaina maybe ten years ago.

I was busy writing a travel story yesterday when I spotted a Facebook note from my sister: “I’m heartbroken over fires on Maui; just read much of Front Street in Lahaina destroyed.”

This was the first I heard of news that has been haunting me for the last 20 hours or so. I’ve tried to focus on work and deadlines, but it’s too hard. I keep going online and checking Twitter/X and multiple news sources to see what’s happening to an island that has always felt like my second home.

As of Thursday morning 10AUG, there were at least 36 reported deaths on a relatively small, close-knit island that may never be the same. Fuelled by winds from a hurricane hundreds of miles away, several wildfires swept over bone-dry patches of Maui (and also the island of Hawai’i) at a furious pace, trapping people in their cars and forcing dozens to dive into the ocean to escape the flames.

The loss of human life is almost unfathomable, and the damage to homes and businesses is staggering. It’s hard to get solid information, but photos from the scene show entire blocks of the historic town of Lahaina reduced to rubble and smoking, senseless ash.

I was 12 years old the first time I set foot on the island of Maui. My parents, who had been twice before, took my sister and I to a small, family-run condo development on Napili Bay called The Mauian. We loved, loved, loved it. And I still love it to this day; the little pool, the brilliant plumeria blossoms, the shuffleboard courts, the green grass, and the blue ocean and fabulous Napili Beach right in front.

It’s maybe 20 minutes from Napili to the town of Lahaina, which at one time was the capital of the kingdom of Hawai’I and also was a wild centre for whaling back in the day. The town later became a mecca for tourists from around the world.

Central Lahaina from the water. The old Pioneer Inn is on the left with the red roof. Jim Byers Photo

Our family would often make the easy drive into Lahaina to shop for groceries or t-shirts, or to go for a fine meal at one of the many waterfront restaurants, where you’ll get some of the finest sunsets on the planet.

Somewhere there’s a photo of me from 1968 posing with the old, carved wooden fisherman on the west side of the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, a simple but evocative white, wooden, two-storey hotel that opened in 1902. I distinctly remember that old guy, as well as the massive, shady banyan tree next door (second largest in the world, they said) and the funky, wooden shops along Front Street.

I’ve been to Maui at least 30 times since that first trip and I’ve sauntered about the streets of Lahaina on probably a hundred occasions.

I’ve dined dozens and dozens of times at the town’s waterfront restaurants, often while watching a golden sun slip into the blue Pacific. I’ve checked out the exhibits on Chinese life at the Ho Wing Temple. I’ve shopped countless times at Honolua Surf Company, grabbed ice cream at Lappert’s, toured the historic Baldwin House on Front Street, and banged the drums at Fleetwood’s on Front, owned by Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac.

I love Lahaina. I love the little pocket beaches and the wooden store fronts and the galleries and the endless souvenir stores. I love that there are two ABC convenience shops so close together. I love the squawking parrots outside the Pioneer Inn and the little museum in front of the Banyan Tree. I love morning services at Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, with joyous hymns and Hawaiian music blasting into a warm, tropical morning.

I’ve surfed in Lahaina a few times. I’ve watched the sun drop into the ocean from a tour boat just offshore, and listened to the sounds of Lahaina waking up as I nursed a coffee at the Pioneer Inn at sunrise.

Downtown Lahaina in better days. Photo Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority

But now? I don’t know. The San Francisco Chronicle is quoting a Baldwin House employee as saying the home has been destroyed. Photos show nothing but rubble where the Pioneer Inn once stood.

I see photos online that seem to show all of central Lahaina has been wiped out. There are burned-out cars and piles of smoking ash where bustling galleries and souvenir shops once stood.

I’m at a loss for words at the devastation and destruction of this peaceful, historic, goofy, fun-loving and greatly treasured town, home to nearly 12,000 people and a delight to visitors for hundreds of years.

“Every single person that I work with, the people that I see at the bank, the grocery store, everyone I know is now homeless,” one Lahaina man told NBC News. “In 36 hours our town has been burnt to ash. There’s nothing left.”

Tourism is important to Maui, but visitors will return. Lahaina and other areas will recover.

But what about the people and the shop owners and their employees? Where do they sleep? How do they pay for food and clothing and the necessities of life? There are shelters for today, but what about next week, next month, next year?

Many of us have lost a special place, but places can be rebuilt. Others have lost their homes or their businesses husbands and wives, or parents. Or, even worse, perhaps their children.
It is to weep.

Jim Byers

Jim Byers is a freelance travel writer based in Toronto. He was formerly travel editor at the Toronto Star and now writes for a variety of publications in Canada and around the world. He's also a regular guest on CBC, CTV News, Global News and other television and radio networks.

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