Kini Varona stands in the ruins of her home. A wildfire destroyed it this past August.

Marco Garcia/AP Images for Scholastic Inc.


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity • Civic Ideals and Practices


Eyewitness to History

The Maui Fires Changed My Life

Kini Varona, 12, and her family narrowly escaped the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Here she shares her powerful story.

Question: Why is it important to document eyewitness accounts of major events?

Kini (KEE-nee) Varona, 12, loved seeing the crystal-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean from her front porch. The ocean’s mighty waves crashed along the shores of Lahaina, where she lived with her family on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Her mom had grown up in the town, and her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins lived nearby.

But that all changed on August 8. With little warning, several wildfires roared to life on Maui. The biggest one engulfed Lahaina. Winds from nearby Hurricane Dora caused the flames to spread at a frightening speed. 

Marco Garcia/AP Images for Scholastic Inc.

This is what was left of the family’s car after the wildfire.

The powerful blaze caught many Lahaina residents by surprise. The hurricane had already knocked out power and internet service in many areas, and the government did not sound an emergency siren. As a result, some people didn’t realize the wildfire was coming until they saw it with their own eyes. Many ran into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames. 

The blaze raged for hours, ripping through homes and businesses. Firefighters worked tirelessly trying to contain it.  

By the time the fire ended, it had killed at least 97 people and demolished more than 2,200 structures. That made it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Much of Lahaina was destroyed, but Kini and her family managed to escape. 

Junior Scholastic interviewed Kini about her experience.

Note: This is an edited, condensed version of the interview with Kini Varona.

What do you remember about the morning of August 8?
When I woke up, the power was off. There was a lot of wind from Hurricane Dora. Trees were falling over. Leaves and trash were just flying. I could see panels of roofs coming off. I had been through a hurricane before. This seemed worse. 

School was scheduled to start on August 9, so I picked my first-day outfit. I had a portable charger, so I played games on my phone. I tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep.

Marco Garcia/AP Images for Scholastic Inc.

Kini and her family at the fire station in Lahaina, two months after the fire

When did you realize there was a fire?
I looked out the window and saw smoke. My mom is a firefighter, so I knew she was probably there. We couldn’t get in touch with her. I was a little worried. 

I asked my dad, “Can we get a closer look at the fire?” We drove to my neighbors’ house. They have a patio up high with a good view. I saw a huge cloud of black smoke. We could hear explosions. It was loud, like Boom! Dad told me the sound was fuel tanks or cars blowing up. 

My dad is a firefighter too. He wanted to go to the Lahaina fire station so he could listen to the radio and help. He said, “We’re probably going to spend the night, so just pack a change of clothes or two.” 

What did you take with you?
I brought two T-shirts, one pair of shorts, one pair of leggings, a bathing suit, and my school outfit. And I brought some skin-care stuff and my electronics. I brought nothing else. 

What happened next?
When we arrived at the fire station, no one was there. The power was out. It was kind of scary. At 9 or 10 p.m., Mom and some other firefighters came back for a break. They had ash all over their faces. Their eyes were bloodshot. They were crying.  

I could hear my mom’s walkie-talkie. At one point, I heard them say, “It’s headed toward Wahikuli.” That was my neighborhood in Lahaina.

I asked my mom, “Is our house going to be OK?” She said, “Nope, I don’t think so.” I was really, really sad when she said that. I was hugging myself with a pillow. I tried to tell myself it wouldn’t happen. 

Then Dad came back and said, “Hey, we gotta get out of here. The fire could get here.” 

Where Kini Lives

Lahaina is on the island of Maui, one of Hawaii’s eight main islands.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Was it hard to get out of town?
We got in the car and tried to go one way, but the road was blocked by a fallen electrical pole. The only way out was to drive toward the fire. 

There was so much traffic. Cars were going nowhere, and the wind was blowing superfast our way. I could see a giant, glowing red smoke cloud devouring my neighborhood. 

I thought we weren’t going to make it out. I was crying. One driver stopped to talk to the police. Everyone was honking at him because he was taking a long time. I started screaming, “Go! Go! Go!” 

Where did you end up?
We went to the fire station in Napili, a nearby town, and we saw some friends there. We hugged them. They asked, “Is the house OK?” It was hard to say “No.”

They offered to let us stay at their house. When we arrived, six other Lahaina kids were there. Four of them had also lost their houses. All the parents were there too, except my mom. She was still fighting the fire. 

What was that first night like?
At first, everyone was so shocked and traumatized that none of us were even crying. I was worried about my mom. Once I realized how big the fire was, I thought, What if she gets trapped because the roads are blocked?

They set up a bed for me in the kitchen. It was hard to sleep knowing that my mom might not be OK and that the whole town was on fire and that people might not make it out. I was worried about my friends and family.

Marco Garcia/AP Images for Scholastic Inc.

Kini, her mom, and their cat Pepper this past October at their temporary house

When did your mom return?
She came back the next morning. She was covered in ash. Her eyes were bloodshot. I could tell she was very sad. I remember people asking if their houses were OK. She had to tell them no, that everything was wiped out. All the adults and kids were crying. 

How were the next few days?
We were mostly just trying to find a place to stay. We were also worried about our extended family. I wanted to see if my friends were OK. 

People set up centers where you could get food, water, and other supplies. I got a toothbrush and toothpaste because I forgot to bring those. I also got some clothes. We were all really grateful. 

One person used a generator to power a TV, so we all went to watch. It showed drone footage of Lahaina. It was hard to tell what some things were. It was all ash and broken cement pieces. They showed my school. It was gone—all gone. 

Were you able to visit Lahaina? 
About a week or two after the fire, we went back to look for our two cats. We had to wear masks because of all the ash and fumes. 

The house was flat. And our car was melted. The metal looked like a liquid, but it was solid. I found some glass bowls. My mom found a chunk of something gold-looking. We don’t know what it is. 

Besides the house, I’m also sad about losing my school and my dad’s coffee shop. It was right next to my mom’s surf school, where she taught kids lessons and did surf camps. That’s gone too. 

I am probably saddest about losing my grandparents’ house. They built it by hand. It’s where my mom grew up. I went there all the time. They also had a sailboat called Tita that my grandpa built. It was in the harbor, and it burned. It’s really hard to think about losing it. Anytime a Hawaiian song comes on, I remember being on the boat and how happy I was there. 

We found our first cat, Pumpkin, on that day we went back. My mom found our other cat, Pepper, a few weeks later. I was shocked and very happy that he had survived. 

Lahaina’s Legacy

Brandon Colbert Photography/Getty Images

Lahaina’s historic and cultural significance dates back centuries. The area was once home to Kamehameha (kuh-may-uh-MAY-hah), Hawaii’s first king. He united the Hawaiian islands into a kingdom in 1810. Lahaina was its capital from 1820 to 1845.

The kingdom began changing significantly in the 1820s, when White settlers started to arrive. Lahaina became an important port for the U.S. whaling industry and later a hub for Hawaii’s sugar industry.  

The White settlers changed Lahaina—and Hawaii—forever. In 1893, they forced Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani (lih-lee-uh-woh-kuh-LAH-nee), to step down. In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii as a territory. Then, in 1959, Hawaii became a U.S. state.

Amid those changes, Lahaina grew into a popular tourist destination. The wildfire destroyed many of its historical buildings. But experts are hopeful that Lahaina will be rebuilt and that its legacy will live on.

Where are you living now?
Someone gave the firefighters and their families houses to live in for a while, so we are in a house. We are so thankful. 

A lot of my friends have moved to the other side of the island or to different islands or states. Some are living in hotels. 

The house is close to the private school I’m going to. There are some other kids from Lahaina going to the same school as me. 

It’s hard because no one at school really talks about Lahaina or its significance (see “Lahaina’s Legacy,” above). I worry that the people there are forgetting about Lahaina. 

Also, my brother, Kimo, couldn’t get a spot at the school. That’s hard for my parents because they have to drive us to two different schools. 

Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post via Getty Images

People in Hawaii participate in traditional paddle out ceremonies to honor the victims of the Lahaina wildfire.

Do you think you will go back to Lahaina?
We want to. But it’s hard to know when it will be rebuilt. We don’t know where we are going to live for the next few years. It’s just really messy.

How has the community supported you? 
On the one-month anniversary of the fire, there was a memorial tribute called Paddle Out for Lahaina. We paddled out into the ocean on our surfboards. At one point, we all made a circle and chanted. People rode Jet Skis around us. A helicopter dropped flowers.

I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It made me so grateful that Lahaina is not being forgotten. 

Eyewitness to History Contest

Do you know someone who has experienced a historic event firsthand?

Help tell their story, and you could have your interview published in JS! The winner will also get $250. Visit JS online for more information, including interview tips and contest rules. The deadline is December 20, 2023.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Open to legal residents of the U.S. in grades 4 to 10. Void where prohibited.

Note: Entries must be written or created by a student in grades 4-10 and submitted by their teacher, parent, or legal guardian, who will be the entrant and must be a legal resident of the U.S. age 18 or older. See page 2 for details.

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