Maui Fire Lawyers – How Tourists Escaped A Fiery West Maui After The Blaze

The gate area at Kahului Airport was jam-packed in the days after the Lahaina fire as many tourists and visitors lined up for available flights back to other islands and the mainland. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The gate area at Kahului Airport was jam-packed in the days after the Lahaina fire as many tourists and visitors lined up for available flights back to other islands and the mainland. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Even as the fires in Lahaina were still burning, even before top state officials knew the magnitude of the disaster, a handful of tourism managers on Maui moved quickly to orchestrate an airlift of some 12,000 visitors off the island and out of harm’s way.

Between the night of Aug. 8, when the fires struck Lahaina, and continuing through the next week, hotel industry executives, tourism officials and tour bus operators organized and operated the exodus.

The prompt and purposeful airlift of tourists removed them from further risk and got them out of the way of rescue workers who descended on the island from all over the United States. It also freed up hundreds of rooms for local residents who had been displaced and were confronting the magnitude of their losses.

In West Maui, a major mecca for tourism, only one tourist is believed to have died in the fire.

This story of what happened to all the tourists unfolded in the background of the cataclysmic wildfire that destroyed much of Lahaina and took the lives of at least 99 people.

The picture is just emerging and is still unclear because many officials on Maui have declined to answer specific questions about what happened during the fires and in their aftermath. County officials have remained mum about what transpired in the emergency operations center and what roles that may have played in the visitor rescue. Public relations officials at the major hotel chains present on the island declined to make their employees available for interviews for this story.

But a handful of people are getting accolades for what they did, including Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, and Roni Gonsalves, Maui station manager for Polynesian Adventure Tours. Both are longtime Maui residents who stepped forward during the crisis.

“Lisa Paulson is a saint; she is an incredible person,” said hotel industry veteran Jimmy Tokioka, director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, who has been involved in the disaster recovery effort from the first day.

“Roni Gonsalves is a hero for sure,” said Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

Across the world, the first news accounts of the Lahaina disaster, reported in newspapers, on television screens and via social media, captured the furious scramble of tourists off the island.

Urged by top Hawaii officials to evacuate as quickly as possible, amid a multi-day power failure and with food supplies running low in the Kaanapali coast resort district, many visitors had found themselves marooned. With wildfires still raging, Maui officials had blocked the Honoapilani Highway, the vital artery that serves as the major conduit between the hotels and the other, safer side of the island, making it difficult to get out.

Stranded motorists, including tourists and Lahaina residents, described navigating the only alternative exit — a narrow and treacherous one-way road across the northern end of the peninsula, past Kapalua to Kahului, where the airport is located. The Maui Guidebook calls this trek “steep, narrow, cliff-edge driving” and recommends against it for those prone to nervousness.

For hapless vacationers without cars, many of them confused about where they were on the island, there was no easy path to safety.

That meant that many thousands of tourists staying in hotels or short-term rentals had no way to get to the airport and off the island. Several thousands more, who had been traveling around the island when the fires erupted, were being housed in disaster shelters along with traumatized fire survivors who had lost their homes and needed extensive services.

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