HONOLULU — Soon after one of Maui’s Japanese Buddhist temples, the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, burned in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, its resident minister was desperate to go back and see what remained.
Six weeks later, he’s more hesitant.
“Now I feel like I have to have mental preparation to go there,” the Rev. Ai Hironaka said. “I’m kind of afraid.”
Hironaka and other Lahaina residents are grappling with a range of emotions as Maui authorities plan next week to begin allowing some on supervised visits back into the areas devastated by the Aug. 8 fire, which killed at least 97 people and demolished thousands of buildings.
Lana Vierra is bracing to see the ruins of the home where she raised five children, a house that started with three bedrooms in 1991 and was expanded to six to accommodate her extended family as the cost of living in Hawaii soared.
She’s been telling her family to be ready when it’s their turn, so that they can all visit together.
“We’re preparing our minds for that,” she said. “I don’t know know if our hearts are prepared for that.”
Authorities have divided the burned area into 17 zones and dozens of sub-zones. Residents or property owners of the first to be cleared for reentry — known as Zone 1C, along Kaniau Road in the north part of Lahaina — will be allowed to return Monday and Tuesday on supervised visits.
Government agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maui County’s highways division are involved in clearing the zones for reentry by, among other things, removing any hazardous materials, checking buildings for structural safety and ensuring safe road access.
Those returning will be provided water, shade, washing stations, portable toilets, medical and mental health care, and transportation assistance if needed, said Darryl Oliveira, Maui Emergency Management Agency interim administrator.
Non-profit groups are also offering personal protective equipment, including respirator masks and coveralls. Officials have warned that ash could contain asbestos, lead, arsenic or other toxins. There are other hazards, too, Oliveira said, such as burned out cars along roads and chunks of metal or concrete in the ruins.
Some people might want to sift through the ashes for any belongings or mementos that survived, but officials are urging them not to, for fear of stirring up toxic dust that could endanger them or their neighbors downwind. Other residents said they didn’t immediately have plans to return to the properties because jobs or the hassle of obtaining a pass to reenter the burn zone would keep them away. / AP