Maui on Fire

When the wildfires came, a young couple turned toward each other to survive Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster.

Lanz Aguinaldo (left) and Isabella Lynch about two miles up the coast from where they dove in to escape the fires. Photo: Josiah Patterson
Lanz Aguinaldo (left) and Isabella Lynch about two miles up the coast from where they dove in to escape the fires. Photo: Josiah Patterson
Lanz Aguinaldo (left) and Isabella Lynch about two miles up the coast from where they dove in to escape the fires. Photo: Josiah Patterson

Sweating through the sheets, Lanz Aguinaldo rolled over in bed to reach for Isabella Lynch. It was just after 9 a.m. on August 8, and the pair normally loved sleeping in, cuddling as the sun streamed through the windows and warmed their bed. Today, the room felt like it was roasting. Isabella, too hot and uncomfortable to sleep, had been awake for 30 minutes already. A plug-in window air conditioner, which usually kept them cool during the tropical Maui summers, could not power on. Electricity in Lahaina had been out for over two hours. Outside, the wind screamed.

A mile northeast, that wind had already toppled power lines, igniting a brush fire in a field swarming with overgrown grass and weeds across from Lahaina Intermediate School, along Lahainaluna Road. Local residents had reported the fire at 6:37 that morning, but without power, television, or internet service, Lanz and Isabella had not heard anything about it.

To the northwest, Lanz and Isabella’s street turned into a dead end. The only direct way out of their neighborhood, and away from the fire-ignition site, was southwest via Lahainaluna Road, two-tenths of a mile away. But the couple were not thinking about exit routes when they woke up that morning. They did not know there was a three-acre-wide brush fire so close.

The National Weather Service had been warning of the fire threats and intense winds from Hurricane Dora, 500 miles from Maui. Forecasters predicted gusts of up to 60 mph, strong enough to move a person. The 18-year-olds had lived through similar red-flag warnings before. Lanz did not think today would be much different. But when she stepped outside, the hot, dusty air whipped around her.

Lanz and Isabella had met at Lahainaluna High School, where at the start of every academic year fallen mangoes blanket the red-dirt grounds. Teens tromp over the rotting fruit on their way to classes, turning the air stinky-sour. Lanz and Isabella shared two classes, English and health. Isabella had tried dating boys at the school before, and Lanz quietly watched those relationships take off, then crash like paper airplanes, all the while thinking her crush would go unrequited. Until one day, over FaceTime, Isabella confessed that she was attracted to women, too. “Whoa,” Lanz said. “That’s new.” On Valentine’s Day 2021, they went to a restaurant and Lanz bought Isabella flowers. By May, they were a couple.

“Half a year with the best girl I could ever ask for,” Lanz wrote on Instagram that November. “Being with you has been the best thing that has ever happened in my life … I will continue to love you till the end.”

Then a photo of Isabella with the words SHOULD I TRIP AND FALL. Followed by a photo of Lanz that read: TRIP AND FALL FOR ME.

When the couple graduated in 2022, they dreamed of renting an apartment together. They did not have college ambitions, at least not yet. They relished their blissful lives on the island and wanted to find local jobs to continue living just like this. Priced out of rentals on Maui, Isabella moved into Lanz’s parents’ two-story house in Lahaina. Lanz’s father, Norman, a maintenance worker for Maui hotels, had moved to the island from the Philippines in 2011, working his way up to supervisor and saving money to buy a home on Kuhua Street, across from a row of canopy-shaped warehouses. He fixed up the property himself and rented out the extra rooms to 15 tenants.

For a long time, Lanz had not been able to afford a bed frame, so she stacked five mattresses on top of one another. Then she trained and got hired for a job as a sushi chef, and Isabella landed a job at a café and later a clothing boutique. They decorated their room with drawings, license plates, paper roses, candles, ceramic cats, and tapestries. Lanz had a secondhand shelf where she kept a tray of silver rings alongside a collection of crystals she shared with Isabella. She also had a vase with a handwritten letter tucked inside. It was from her late grandmother and was her most cherished possession. “Dear Lanz,” it read. “Be good in school … Be good to your parents. And always pray for me.”

In May, the couple decided to take a break. Their futures uncertain, they wondered if they should live somewhere else, or if they should even be together. For now, they’d keep living together at the Aguinaldos’ house, where they woke up hungry for breakfast on the 8th. They lit the gas stove, heating a pot of water to cook instant pancit, Filipino noodles with soy sauce and seasoning. Around noon, Lanz’s nieces, nephews, and their mom came over and ate with them. School was canceled because of the winds, and the day felt like a holiday. Lanz’s father had gone to work that morning, but her mother, Liza, a housekeeper for a Lahaina hotel, stayed home. The family ate and visited and chatted about the weird weather. Liza plucked her nephew’s wife’s eyebrows. Every few minutes, a fierce gust ripped through the streets, sending tree branches ricocheting.

Desperate for relief from the heat, Lanz’s elder brother, Alex, hooked up a generator, plugging in a fan along with their cell phones. The service was cutting in and out, as it had before during windstorms, with blasts arriving furiously at around 60 mph. From the lanai, Lanz saw her neighbors scrambling to salvage slabs of their roof. The air smelled eerily, like barbecue, and a smoky haze crept across the sky. Soon, the wind had carried the entire roof away like torn slips of paper. Another neighbor’s outside walls started to peel off too.

“What kind of hurricane is this?” Lanz said to Isabella. There was no rain. Just hot, wild winds that knocked over her mom’s coconut tree. It crashed to the ground.

In the past century, the area burned by wildfires in Hawaii shot up by 400 percent, according to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. West Maui, where Lahaina is located, already had the highest risk of wildfires on the island. In 2018, when Lanz and Isabella were high-school freshmen, a brush fire carried flames into the surrounding neighborhoods, ripping through 2,100 acres and destroying 21 buildings and 27 cars. There were no human casualties, but it ultimately wreaked more than $4.3 million in damages.

In its aftermath, residents and wildfire experts called for power lines to be buried underground. Some warned there would not be enough firefighters — just 200 to cover the 700-square-mile island — to take on another wildfire if it got out of control. They pushed to build another fire station six miles from the Lahaina town center. But local residents, such as the head of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, had to find the money themselves. Maui’s fire chief identified a potential location. By August 2023, the residents had raised $400,000 — $1.6 million short of their goal, which would have paid for the construction and shipment of a modular fire department from the mainland.

Lanz and Isabella knew that Maui was in a severe drought. In the late 1800s, U.S. businessmen built irrigation systems to feed their commercial sugarcane plantations, which eventually decimated natural ecosystems. Even earlier, European cattle ranchers moved to Maui, bringing with them nonnative grasses to feed their livestock. Lahaina’s sugarcane industry began to die out in the late-20th century. Tens of thousands of acres of former farmland sat dormant, overgrowing with these highly flammable non-native plants. The neglected infrastructure led to Lahaina becoming even drier and hotter as climate change brought sweltering air.

“The threat of fire breaking out in these fields will likely increase due to increasing temperatures and prolonged drought periods associated with climate change,” noted a 2021 wildfire-prevention report from Maui’s Cost of Government Commission. It suggested fire authorities work with landowners to clear the brush. That report also warned that Maui’s aboveground power lines were dangerous. If the lines toppled, experts warned, they could easily ignite the brush, especially in high winds.

By 3 p.m., local authorities had not yet made any televised announcements advising Lanz and Isabella to evacuate their neighborhood, not that they would have been able to see them without power. Maui Emergency Management Agency had not sent cell-phone alerts or posted on X warning residents to evacuate, either; the department had only been noting road closures and reopenings. Isabella tried texting her mother, who lived in San Diego, but her messages failed to go through.

On Kuhua Street around 3:30 p.m., Alex went outside to check on the smoke, which was now so dense he could barely see the sun. When he came back inside, his body was cloaked in ash. Lanz’s mom looked at her son and made a quick decision. Still no alerts or sirens, but the ash, she realized, must mean a fire was nearby. Liza did not want to wait for warnings that might not come. She frantically began to pack, telling her daughter to do the same. She stuffed clothes, along with two bathroom towels, into a bag. Power lines in front of their home and just beyond their balcony swung like jump ropes.

At first, Lanz didn’t fully grasp the danger. She began to laugh. “Why are we packing?”

Isabella knew this was Lanz’s coping mechanism under stress. She was always the one to laugh or crack jokes to lighten the mood. “We are going to be fine,” Lanz reassured her. The firefighters would contain the flames. They would come back home to all their stuff. Even now, there were no warning sirens. But Lanz’s mom was adamant. Her gut told her they had to go now.

Lanz had evacuated during the 2018 fire and came back home to a house perfectly intact. The firefighters put that one out, and they would put this one out, too. Still, when Lanz went into her bedroom, she hugged her rack of clothes: vintage jackets, soft hoodies, a new reversible Vans puffer coat she had not yet worn. There was no time or space to take them. “I’ll see you guys later,” she said. Lanz grabbed the letter from her grandmother. Isabella had never evacuated because of fire before. Her heart pounded as she packed their laptops and her Nintendo Switch.

They went downstairs to the garage, loading up the family’s Toyota RAV4. The heat outside made them feverish. Ash in the air stuck to every part of them, covering their clothes, flying onto their tongues, and stinging their eyes. Lanz’s mom gave them black disposable face masks to cover their mouths. Lanz wore glasses and a red trucker hat with a rooster emblem. Isabella protected her eyes with the blue-light-filtering glasses she used to look at screens.

Alex got into the driver’s seat, their mom in the front beside him. Lanz had her own 2005 Honda Civic, which she’d parked on the street. But she was low on gas, and they wanted to stay together, so she left the car behind. Lanz and her brother had never been very close, mostly because he was six years older. But they loved each other, and on this afternoon she began to see him as a father figure with Norman off at work. In fact, Alex would be a father soon. His wife, who still lived in the Philippines, was expecting to give birth to their first child in a month.

Lanz and Isabella sat in the back, eager to leave. But the group could not pull out of the garage yet. Other tenants in the house were still loading up a car in the driveway, blocking them in. Another five anguished minutes passed before they made it out to Kuhua Street. Lanz could see shredded garage doors from the warehouses across the street soaring through the sky.

Alex inched down the block toward Lahainaluna Road. They’d moved only a few feet when a heavy mango tree ensnared by electrical wires came crashing to the ground in front of the RAV4. If they had left a minute earlier, their car would have been crushed.

For as long as Lanz could remember, the mango tree had flourished in the yard of an elderly man with a hunched back. Isabella thought about the man, whom she always passed on her way home from work as he happily tended to his tree and garden. Where was he now? Was he trying to evacuate too? But there was no time to stop and check on neighbors.

The fallen tree did not cut off all of Kuhua Street, and Alex managed to steer around it. Every other way out would have led them down dead ends or further uphill toward the fires. Now, thicker and darker smoke billowed between homes; the fire was no longer burning the clean fuel of dry grasses in empty fields but the dirty fuel of domestic living: nail files, colanders, stuffed animals. “Holy fuck,” Lanz said. “It’s really close.”

Lanz records as they evacuate. It would be the last time she’d see her home.

Alex navigated past another towering tree, this one with streaks of orange flames flickering from its base, branches, and trunk. By the time they made it to the end of Kuhua Street, toward the intersection of Lahainaluna Road, cars were jammed together in a funnel trying to squeeze onto the same road out. They crawled down Lahainaluna. Visibility had worsened to the point that it was hard to see the road even with the high beams on. The windows were as hot as a stovetop. Even the recycled air in the car was hot and hard to breathe.

Moments later, yet another tree several feet away from them began to crumble and break apart, pieces of branches dropping like daggers toward their car. They sounded like shrapnel as they hit the windows. Lanz’s mom screamed.

“Duck!” Lanz shouted. “Duck!”

Across Lahaina, 911 calls poured in. “I live on Lahainaluna Road, right next to the fire,” a young woman reported at 3:30 p.m. “My uncle is still trapped in the house. He’s handicapped.” Followed by a call from her mother: “He’s an 88-year-old man. He cannot transport. He would literally have to be carried out … The bougainvillea bush is on fire right now. I just had to leave him because I have the rest of my family in the car.”

At 3:31 p.m.: “There’s a fireball right behind our house.” More calls. The fire was in their backyard. And in a building nearby. And up the street.

Over and over, as if waiting for permission, callers to 911 repeated the same question: “Do we need to evacuate?”

“If you feel unsafe, I would say ‘yes,’” an emergency operator replied at 3:35 p.m. “But if you feel secure in your house, I would just stay home. But it’s up to you.”

“If we have to evacuate, where the fuck are we supposed to go?” a woman asked at 3:43 p.m. The dispatch operator told her to head to Lahaina Civic Center.

Herman Andaya, head of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, was the person with power to decide whether or not to sound a siren on Maui that day. But he was off island on August 8, attending a FEMA disaster-preparedness seminar on Oahu. The conference took place at the Alohilani resort in Waikiki, a 30-minute plane ride away from Maui. It was Andaya who, from Oahu, made the decision not to sound any warning sirens in Lahaina. Andaya later explained that he had thought people would have assumed it was a tsunami and headed toward the mountains — into the fire. But everyone could see the flames were already consuming the hills, roads, and now homes. A day after making that statement, Andaya resigned.

The mayor and his team at the emergency-operations center on the other side of the island also did not grasp the magnitude of the terror unfolding in Lahaina. The county issued this notification on X at 4:26 p.m.: “Residents of Lahaina Kelawea Mauka Subdivision is calling for immediate evacuation … Grab your ‘Go Kits’ and evacuate your family and pets now.” A similar cell-phone alert had been sent to residents ten minutes earlier. But that subdivision was nearly a mile from Lanz’s home and even farther from the traffic jam in which they now found themselves ensnarled amid scorched homes and trees.

Lanz’s father FaceTimes the family, urging them to join him. But there’s no way to get around the gridlock.

The RAV4’s windows withstood the assault of the falling branches, so they continued on. Alex was trying to head past the civic center, 30 minutes north of Lahaina to Kapalua, where their father was still at work. Norman had been dialing their cell phones to check on them, but service kept cutting out. If they could just make it to him, Norman told them over broken calls, they would be fine. Lanz thought he was being hardheaded: He didn’t understand that getting out of Lahaina seemed impossible.

By 4:30 p.m., Alex had steered them off Lahainaluna Road and into an outlet-mall parking lot, desperately scanning for a way out. Now the stores were catching fire.

Isabella looked at Lanz. “Are we going to die?” Isabella asked her.

But Lanz told her that was not going to happen: “We’re going to be okay.”

Part of her just felt the need to comfort Isabella. She wanted to give all of them hope that this was not the end, and if any doubt crept into her own mind, she swatted it away. Besides, they were not far from the water. If it came to that, she told herself, they could go into the ocean.

Alex left the parking lot right before it went up in flames and headed toward the highway leading to their father’s hotel. But every route was blocked by cars, debris, power lines, and fire. He turned the car around again, heading back toward the very zone they had just left. They couldn’t see a clear road out that way either. They spotted the area they had parked at minutes earlier. It was in flames. “We literally came from there,” Lanz said. “And now there’s a fire starting.”

“I don’t think we’re going to make it anywhere,” Isabella said.

It was 4:37 p.m.

Alex maneuvered away.

“Why did we turn around?” Isabella asked through tears. “We should go back.”

But there was nowhere to go. Their surroundings made it horrifyingly clear: Staying put meant burning to death.

At 4:47 p.m., a man called 911. “Traffic is completely stuck,” he shouted. The intersections were closed. “You need to open it up. There is no reason why. People can’t evacuate this area. You need to do that. Police need to do that. People are going to die!”

More calls from trapped people came in to dispatch. At 4:49 p.m., a woman cried, “They closed the roads.” She and her companions were heading back toward the fires. “Where are we going then?”

“Where are you?” the operator asked. “Everybody should be pushing you toward Lahaina Civic Center.”

The woman said police had directed them down a dirt road. But two men had closed and locked the gates to it because of downed power lines and blocked the road with a truck. She told the operator the men did not appear to be police or authorities. Now, she said, the police who had first directed them were gone: “Help us.”

Meanwhile, at 5:03 p.m., another county alert went unreceived by Isabella, Lanz, and Lanz’s family. “Lahaina fire flare-up forces Lahaina Bypass road closure,” it read, seemingly still oblivious to the reality on the ground. “Shelter in place encouraged.”

Alex drove through a hailstorm of embers that sounded like they might crack the window glass. He tried to make it to his father’s hotel. But the highway was also blocked. These blockades remain under investigation, and police have released body-camera footage showing officers helping residents evacuate. But Lanz and Isabella specifically remember police blocking the way. Lanz took a video of a police car, blue lights glowing.

So many lines had fallen. Everyone on the ground, including law enforcement, seemed to assume the wires were live and dangerous, as power-company press releases had advised. Some residents moved the lines with branches. But Hawaiian Electric later said it had de-energized power lines in the area by 7 a.m. after learning about the morning fire.

Like so many others, police redirected Alex to Front Street, along the ocean. Maybe, they reasoned, if they made it to Liza’s workplace — a hotel on Front Street — they could shelter there. A week earlier, Isabella and Lanz had cruised the block, stopping at the McDonald’s after work for fries and Diet Cokes. They had recently dressed up in pink and watched the Barbie movie down the block. Now, Front Street too had become an inferno. The McDonald’s, and the Bank of Hawaii, and the theater — all of it burned. People trapped in cars, on foot, and on bikes all desperately searched for somewhere to go as the flames devoured everything in sight. They could not make it to the hotel, and even if they did, the hotel would not be safe.

Alex put his head down on the steering wheel and started sobbing. Lanz could not believe it. Her brother never cried. She had never even seen him scared. Lanz did not want to cry. There was nowhere else to go, she told herself, but the ocean.

“Let’s just get out,” Lanz said. “Let’s go into the water. We can do this. Let’s just get out right now.” Lanz started gathering whatever they could take with them into the sea.

Isabella, able to get a brief signal, texted her mother. She told her they were trapped in a fire. But there was nothing about it on the national news yet. Isabella’s mom checked her daughter’s location on FindMyFriends and told her daughter to please get into the water if she had to. She knew Isabella was an expert swimmer who had grown up practicing in the ocean.

“I’m scared,” Isabella texted back. “I don’t want to die.” Isabella told her mother she loved her. Then cell service went out. Her mother checked her location tracker again. The last ping was on Front Street.

The wind whipped embers at them as they left the RAV4, leaving their laptops, documents, and jewelry behind. They climbed over a stone ledge, descending down a bank of jagged rocks. Lanz helped an older man in a white tank top as he clambered down the rocks. He didn’t seem strong enough to swim and stayed behind where fire would soon lick the edges of the shore. They went into the water as the waves boomed like thunder.

The sea was unlike any water Isabella had ever tried to swim. It crashed over their heads. All four grabbed onto a palm frond to stay together. It took all of their strength to hold on amid the fury of wind and waves.

The foursome shared the two towels that Lanz’s mother had brought, wetting them with seawater and draping them over their heads. Each gust brought a shower of fiery embers and air scorched with hot ash. The towels blocked their faces and shielded their eyes from the smoke. Every filtered breath took effort. They could not see one another, but they could hear one another.

“Are you holding on?” Lanz’s mom asked every few minutes.

“Yeah,” Lanz replied.

“Are you still there?”

Lanz’s mother clung onto Alex. Lanz knew her mom, 51, was not a strong swimmer. They tried to stay close to the shore, their feet tiptoeing and bouncing along the ocean floor. The palm frond whipped around in the waves like a battle rope, and they were yanked around with it.

How long are we going to be here for? Lanz asked herself. Surely, someone would rescue them soon. There were so many people around them, floating, swimming, trying to shelter on the rocks. The Coast Guard. Emergency crews. The military. Someone was definitely coming to help. It was just after 6 p.m.

At 6:03 p.m., the mayor appeared live on television. “I’m happy to report that the road is open to and from Lahaina,” Bissen announced in an interview with KITV news. “We had some challenges early today trying to get people in and out of Lahaina. That road opened at about 5 p.m.”

Bissen did not indicate he had any idea people were trapped on burning streets or had fled into the water: He said only that he didn’t have an update on how many people were using the evacuation center at Lahaina Civic Center and didn’t know how many structures had burned. “Our update is actually going to come in at about 7 p.m.,” he said, “and we’ll get all the reports at that time.”

“What should residents there know about tonight’s fire?” the newscaster asked.

The mayor encouraged people to watch the live news and visit Maui County’s website and social media. “We’ve been putting out a pretty steady stream of updates throughout the day.” And, he reiterated, “Don’t touch any downed power lines. Don’t try to clear the road yourself.”

Mayor Bissen would say at a press conference three weeks later that he did not know who was in charge in Lahaina that day. Reports of 911 calls and police dispatches do not appear to have been relayed to him or his team at emergency operations in those unfolding hours, and no one from his office has been able to explain why. Communication seems to have collapsed in the fast-moving chaos. At the emergency-operations center, Bissen had been waiting for that early-evening update from the Lahaina fire chief. It did not come. That was when he began to realize something must be wrong. He did not even know anyone had died until the next morning.

At the off-island FEMA event, the director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Major General Kenneth S. Hara, went on live news on the evening of August 8. He said his office was providing traffic control and security support to Lahaina from the National Guard. But he had no idea the town was already decimated or that people were stranded in the water. “I thought everyone had gotten out safely,” Hara would later tell reporters. “It wasn’t until probably the next day that I started hearing about some fatalities.”

A short plane ride away from the FEMA event, the girls bobbed in the water beneath their towels. Three hours passed. Still no rescuers. Isabella knew there was a vast military force in Hawaii. Why had no one showed up yet? Had the fire wiped out the entire island? she worried. Had all of the firefighters perished too? Where were they?

From her vantage point, Isabella could peek from beneath the towel and see Lahaina’s historic banyan tree on fire. The harbor was engulfed. Boats burned. A giant piece of sheet metal from a nearby restaurant’s roof hurtled into the water, scratching Isabella. Every car that caught fire or exploded brought more black, suffocating smoke.

A woman nearby was impaled by a sea urchin. Isabella and Lanz knew sea-urchin stings can be venomous. Isabella wore black sandals. Lanz wore white Crocs. Both young women loved collecting Jibbitz charms for their Crocs: anime characters, butterflies, wings. In the waves, one of Isabella’s sandals kept floating away, but they immediately grabbed it, trying to keep her feet covered.

From beneath the towels, they could hear people screaming, crying, coughing, wheezing, running out of breath. Others around them did not have towels or masks to block the smoky air. Lanz worried most about her mom. She had to stay strong for her.

Another hour passed. Some people decided to try to swim to Baby Beach, a shoreline about a quarter-mile away. It was a dangerous journey in this surge. So many were exhausted from the water and smoke. Isabella thought she could make it and that maybe Lanz could too. But Isabella knew Lanz wouldn’t want to leave her mom. And Isabella didn’t want that either.

“Just breathe,” Lanz told Isabella. “We can do this.”

She told her mom, “We have to hold on. We’ll fight through it. Be strong.”

“I love you,” Lanz told Isabella. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose my mom.”

“I love you too,” Isabella told Lanz. She realized that if they made it out alive, she wanted their break to end. They had to be together.

Now, five hours had gone by. Isabella thought about her sister. She worried about her mother in California, who she knew was fretting about her and staring at her phone, waiting for a reply. She thought about the last time she had seen them, how happy she had felt. Would she ever see them again? She wondered if she should have gone to trade school.

Isabella felt herself drifting off to sleep. She was so exhausted.

Then she heard a voice in her head: You’re going to be okay. She hoped it was right. But the voice washed over her again. It helped her gather the strength to fight off sleep. “Breathe,” she told herself. “Breathe.”

Every now and then, the wind would let up a little. The smoke seemed to clear a bit. In those moments, Lanz and Isabella inhaled deeply, relieved, as if breathing fresh air. Alex pulled a plastic bag out of the backpack. A Filipino butter muffin! They each had a bite.

The water turned frigid as darkness fell. Lanz shivered. Beneath the towels, she listened closely for the sounds of her loved ones breathing. And she cried. Death was all around her. She could hear it. Isabella assumed people were dead already in the water, on the rocks, their bodies hidden by smoke. But she would not die today. They would not.

Over the past couple of years, Lanz had captured so many moments on her iPhone, now stuffed inside of a backpack floating in the waves with them. Some of these photos she would share; most she kept for herself. Lanz had posted a clip of herself from months ago, holding her mom in her arms and spinning her around as her dad lounged behind them. I LOVE YOU NANANG, she wrote under it. She had even filmed their escape from the fires, right up until the moment they got into the water.

Earlier in the year, Lanz posted a photo on TikTok of a Maui street in the dark under a rising orange sun. She wrote, PHOTOS IVE TAKEN THAT MAKE ME APPRECIATE LIFE. Now, six hours in the water had passed. Soon the sun would rise. Lanz inhaled.

Just after midnight, the fire seemed to have burned itself down to the shoreline. It was beginning to subside. People who had managed to stay alive in the water began climbing back onto the rocks. Lanz pulled herself up the bank. She spotted the older man in the tank top whom she had helped earlier that day. He looked like he was lying down. “Hey, sir,” she said. She tried to wake him, then realized he was dead.

One survivor took videos of what was left. Carcasses of hundreds of cars. A small burned body beneath a charred vehicle. A dead dog, singed to ash. Remains of people still in cars. A lifeless man, face up on the shore, his shirt lifted up above his belly. A dead woman splayed across the rocks, her hair covering her face. Bodies floating in the waves. One wore red.

At around 1 a.m., still huddled on the rocks, Lanz and Isabella began to see lights in the water. They thought it was the Coast Guard. Everyone began waving and flashing their cell-phone lights to get their attention. The boats sailed past them three times. Isabella gave up hope that they were going to come for them.

After getting out of the water, the survivors onshore shine their flashlights to signal for rescue. Photo: Lanz Aguinaldo

The wind had calmed a little. Still, they kept the towels over their faces. They walked down the blackened road until they got to their burned-out RAV4. A yellow suitcase in the back seat had partially melted but otherwise remained intact. Their phones, surprisingly, still worked. Isabella’s Nintendo Switch didn’t make it. But the letter from Lanz’s grandmother did.

Thirty minutes later, the boats sent swimmers on surfboards to survey the shore. Isabella remembered nearly 150 people going into the water. Now, she figured there were about 70 left. Some had made it to Baby Beach. Some must have drowned trying. Others died near the shore. Still others must have managed to escape to somewhere else.

Isabella wondered, Did they plan to take everyone who was left, one by one, aboard a boat via a surfboard? The four of them had just gotten out of the water, and it was so cold and dark. They did not want to get back in. Isabella’s phone had 2 percent of its battery life left. She tried to call her mom several times before finally getting through. She heard her sobbing with relief. Isabella wept too.

Finally, a fire truck arrived. Eleven hours had passed since Isabella, Lanz, her mom, and her brother had fled their home. It was the first fire truck they had seen. “We need able-bodied people who can walk to our trucks,” one fireman shouted.

Isabella couldn’t believe their lack of urgency, their terse tone. She spotted an older woman who couldn’t walk being loaded into a grocery cart. Another man was hyperventilating. He had been helping people climb the rock wall, and his lungs were giving out on him. The firefighters did not seem concerned. “It was not like they were rescuing people who had just been through a near-death experience,” Isabella would later say. “They were just like we were a little job, like chores that they had to do.”

They were grateful, of course, but also confused. Maybe the firefighters had gone through too much already? Isabella, Lanz, and her mom and brother climbed into the open back of the truck. As it drove away, they realized that the town was totally leveled. Buildings were still shooting flames as they sped past. Firefighters yelled at them to duck when they encountered power lines. Lanz and Isabella looked around in shock. Lahaina was a graveyard.

Heading to shelter, Isabella, Lanz, and Lanz’s family watch Lahaina burn around them.

Lanz began to worry about her uncle, nieces, and nephews. Had they made it out okay? And their neighbors? The ones whose roof blew off? Lanz adored their 7-year-old grandson, Tony. She had known him since he was in diapers. He would come over and ask her innocent questions. Lanz would answer, sharing food and jokes with him. She later learned her father’s tenants had gotten out safely, and so too her nieces and nephews. But her neighbors did not make it. Grandfather, grandmother, mother, and Tony all died trying to escape.

They headed toward the Lahaina Civic Center. But as soon as they arrived, officers stopped them. The fire was too close to the shelter. They had to evacuate to another one, at Maui Preparatory Academy, with 700 others. When they arrived, there were no blankets; they wore their sea-soaked clothes. Isabella shivered and Lanz woke up crying. They did not shower. Still covered in ash, Isabella’s goldish-brown hair had turned black. Even their eyebrows were stained.

The next morning, Lanz’s mom got a cell signal and made contact with Lanz’s father. He had spent the night terrified that their call before getting into the ocean was the last time he would ever hear their voices. He drove them to one of the hotels where he worked.

Days later, they would return to their home on Kuhua Street. Everything — Lanz’s car, bedroom, clothes, the sofas, the lanai, the entire home — had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Two days after the fire, Isabella asked Lanz to be her girlfriend again. Lanz said yes. They flew to San Diego to stay with Isabella’s mother. Meanwhile, Lanz’s family stayed at the Sands of Kahana hotel on Kahana Beach, nine miles from their burned-down property. Everything was chaotic. Lanz and Isabella did not want to burden Lanz’s parents. Lanz’s mother now had no job. The Lahaina hotel she cleaned had shuttered. Lanz’s father had lost all of his tools in the fire. Now, they slept in a hotel room with sheer orange drapes, orange cushions, and an orange sofa. It had a kitchen stocked with noodles, peanut butter, Hawaiian rolls, and a rice cooker.

In 2022, Hawaii had the highest cost of living of any state, including California and New York, and renting on Maui has only gotten harder for its middle-class residents as off-island real-estate investors have bought up homes and turned them into vacation rentals. Lanz’s family were among 6,800 fire survivors now living in 36 hotels on Maui. The tourists would return soon; the governor declared West Maui open again exactly two months after the fire. Survivors still did not know where they would go next.

Lanz’s father said his home’s last appraisal before the fire came to $1.2 million. But he still owed $715,000 on his home loan. His insurance would only cover $500,000. This meant he would have to take out another loan to rebuild it, not to mention the labor costs. But he was determined to get his place back, even if it meant building it himself. Why not leave? His voice broke when he answered: “Because I love Maui.” On the carpeted floor under the kitchen counter, he had already begun collecting tools to rebuild, bringing a new one back each day: a finishing-nail gun, a power drill, a framing gun, a circular saw, a construction ruler.

Lanz in front of where her family home stood. Photo: Isabella Lynch

Meanwhile, Lanz and Isabella remained in a state of disbelief. “Before, we were just grateful to have been saved, and we still are,” Isabella said. “But now we’re just like, ‘Why wasn’t it sooner? How could we have gone through this? Why? Why were we all trapped? Why were we not evacuated?’ Just so many different questions. And a lot of sadness has turned to anger now. Like, why didn’t they do something to avoid this happening? I mean, our whole town burned down. They could have at least, like, tried harder to get the people out. In that kind of situation, even if there’s downed power lines, you let people through because so many more people would have survived.”

The same questions now sit at the center of investigations by Congress, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, Hawaiian Electric, and Maui County, as well as over two dozen lawsuits, all probing what happened on and before August 8 to cause the deadliest U.S. wildfire since 1918, killing 100 people ranging in age from 7 to 97.

After a few weeks in California, Lanz flew back to Maui. She felt guilty for being away from her parents. They needed to figure out their insurance and income, how to solicit donations and begin to rebuild. Isabella helped create a GoFundMe page for them online. But Lanz wanted to do more.

It was hard leaving Isabella, even for a week. But they had survived the fire, the wind, the ocean. Their relationship, Lanz was confident, c ould survive this separation too. And by October, the two had reunited. Lanz posted pictures of them kissing and wrote, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY BEAUTIFUL GIRL. I LOVE YOU TO THE MOON AND BACK. Lanz also TikToked herself in her “pumpkin patch fit” jean shorts and an olive button-down, to which Isabella replied, “u my pick of da patch.”

Recently, Isabella posted an old photo of Lahaina glowing orange at sunset. It was taken from her home on Kuhua Street. “I miss my house,” she wrote in one steady stream of thoughts. “i miss my girlfriends car i miss my job and walking to work and walking all around lahaina i miss foodland i miss front street and the banyan tree and my elementary school … oh lahaina i just miss everything about you so much and im so sad and angry i miss my home.”

By November, Lanz and Isabella had managed to get their old jobs back. The boutique and the sushi restaurant, neither of which had been damaged by the fire, reopened. The couple found a small apartment together not far from their burned-down home. Lanz’s parents are still rotating among hotels until they can move into a rental house in February.

Lanz is posting again. Lip-syncing, dancing, posing in outfits. She recently posted a photo reel of their relationship with the caption SHE KEEPS ON LOVING ME AND I KEEP WONDERING WHY, one of her favorite love songs by the Red Clay Strays playing over the images. But off-camera, Lanz often thinks back to that day. The strength she mustered in those horrifying moments. She had never been the serious adult in the room, the person ready to take charge. But on August 8, she grew up faster than she had ever wanted to, her words to her mom and Alex and Isabella in the water a mantra moving forward: “We can do this. We have to hold on.”

Videos by Lanz Aguinaldo

A Maui Love Story