Neighbors help neighbors in recovery from Kula fires

Kulalani Drive resident Ross Hart outlines plans to clear debris and build anew Thursday morning in Kula. He and wife Gayle Hart lost their home and most their belongings to the wind-whipped fire. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KULA — Even with his Kula home gone and not much else to pick out of the charred rubble, Ross Hart continues to visit his property every day. 

“We’re just looking forward,” Hart said on Thursday, shortly after using a hose to douse some brush that started to smoke again in a gulch behind what was his home on Kulalani Drive.  

“We’re going to clean up and make new.”

Hart, who used to work for Haleakala National Park, donned his old fire jacket Aug. 8 to fight the blaze spreading in brush and a gulch behind his home. Neighbors and their friends and family also helped out around the neighborhood, trying to keep the fire at bay from the homes. 

Hart remained until the last moment that night on Aug. 8, truck running and ready to go as the fire got to his home. 

A helicopter pilot hovers over a Kula home while filling a firefighting bucket with water Thursday morning. The pilot was dousing hotspots in the area. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“You take that last look, right?” he said. 

The Harts’ home is among the estimated 20 that the county said were destroyed Upcountry. 

Maui County Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat, is encouraging those who lost homes to seek out federal help, which can be done face-to-face as well as online, though she said it’s much better in person and was pleased to see the federal boots on the ground. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a Disaster Recovery Center at the University of Hawai’i Maui College campus in Kahului to assist residents impacted by the fires. It is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. 

Sugimura was warmed by the volunteer and community help from and for Upcountry residents. 

Kulalani Drive residents Glenn and Colleen Okazaki check a hotspot smoking in the deep gulch below their home Thursday morning. The Okazaki family and neighbors fought hard to save the house, cottage and neighboring homes in howling winds and dense smoke. Glenn Okazaki is a retired Maui firefighter, last stationed in Kula. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“The most amazing thing, they all help each other,” Sugimura said. “This is the living aloha … They are all helping each other.” 

From watering down their homes on the first night of the fires to passing out much-needed supplies, neighbors have been helping neighbors Upcountry. 

The Okazaki family, who also live on Kulalani Drive, had their home spared, which they say is thanks to their adult children, along with their neighbors, the Cremers, and other neighbors and community members. 

“We’re fortunate. We lucky. Just hard work,” said Glenn Okazaki, a retired firefighter.

On Aug. 8, the Okazakis watered down their property, especially the area facing the trees and gulch where the fire was spreading. 

An ABC World News Tonight With David Muir crew sets up Thursday morning in front of a fire-destroyed Kula home at the intersection of Nunu Place and Kulamanu Circle. With lights, cameras, production vans, and about 20 personnel, the production was gearing up about three hours before Thursday’s show would start. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The family took old fire hoses that they had — that the Fire Department could no longer use and would normally throw away — and hooked them up to fire hydrants to spray down the area. 

It was an all-day affair ensuring their house was safe as well as the neighborhood. 

Colleen Okazaki said everyone pitched in, because “if our houses started, the whole neighborhood all the way down the road” would have caught on fire. 

The Okazakis’ home is just about the highest on a slope, with the rest of the neighborhood downhill. 

“The neighbors, some good friends saved our houses and tried to protect the neighborhood too,” she said, noting that friends kept on watering down their property with water trucks, as did the Fire Department when they came by. 

A modest collection of belongings sits to the side of the rubble of what was once the Kulalani Drive home of Ross and Gayle Hart. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“When we left Tuesday night (Aug. 8), we accepted our house would burn,” Colleen Okazaki said as helicopters continued to fly over the neighborhood Thursday, dousing hot spots. 

But the home survived, even as others didn’t.  

The family and neighbors worked hard again Aug. 9 as fire crews were spread thin with the Lahaina fire also going on.  

Large containers with at least 275 gallons of water were used to fight the fire Aug. 9. 

Friends and family kept the battle going, even going up and down the roadway refilling the containers.  

“We are so thankful. The devastation is nothing like Lahaina. Behind that mountain is sadness,” Colleen Okazaki said. 

As news of the wildfires Upcountry and in Lahaina garnered national and international attention, Kula residents noted the heavy media presence in their neighborhoods over the past week. 

On Thursday, farther down the hill from Hart’s home, was another destroyed residence, where a television network set up shop, including studio lighting, cameras and trucks. Private security was parked nearby. Neighbors said broadcasts were being done early in the morning Hawaii time to send over to the East Coast. 

Hart, like so many others on Maui, is working to tally the damages and gauge next steps. He estimated that their 36-year-old home and what was lost would add up to more than $1 million and has already been in touch with his insurance company. 

But “personal value is more important,” Hart said of the home, where his his four children, now adults, all grew up. 

It became an empty nest that he shared with wife Gayle, and a place where he fixed things such as riding lawn mowers. He joked that his wife told him, “too many junks.” 

But still, it was special, and Hart fought to keep his home intact. 

Hart said he did not want to see federal government agencies get involved and slow the rebuilding process. 

“I don’t need you to condemn our land for 10 years — go away,” he said. 

Hart also asked the county for leniency on his water bill, as he had to use his own water to unsuccessfully defend his home and was continuing to use the water to put out hot spots this week.  

As of Friday, the 1,081-acre Olinda fire was 85 percent contained, and the 202-acre Kula fire was 85 percent contained. The county has said hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard-to-reach places continued to make it difficult for firefighters to establish complete control lines.

Volunteers Upcountry are also hard at work helping those who’ve lost homes or are sheltering displaced residents. 

At the bus turnout by Kula Lodge, around 30 volunteers gathered for a morning meeting Thursday and fanned out to different areas around Kula to help residents, mainly with debris cleanup from the winds, said Cody Lang, one of the organizers. 

It’s not so much removing debris from homes that caught fire as it is removing branches and trees from the perimeter of those homes, Lang said. The debris are being put into green piles. 

The area was also a place where residents could pick up supplies, with water being the most in demand, Lang said. 

There were also canned goods, snacks, sweetbread rolls and household and personal items. 

Lang said if anyone Upcountry has been housing people from Lahaina, they could also come and pick up supplies to help feed their guests. 

“If they have family (staying with them), come to the Kula depot,” he said. 

For more information on the efforts, follow Upcountry Strong or Pukalani Superette on social media. 

Organizers said they plan to be at the bus turnout until Sunday, after which a new location will be determined. They also thanked Kula Lodge for sharing its space. 

All the people at the Kula site were volunteers and not from any particular organization, Lang said.  

“Just the community rallying,” Lang said. “Proud of the community.”

* Staff Writer Melissa Tanji can be reached at 

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