Before the fires burned a large section of Lahaina, Hawaii, in early August 2023, there was wind – lots of wind.
“We were working the whole week before (the storm and wildfires) in the neighborhood that was most directly affected, doing annual maintenance pruning, up through Monday,” says Mike Merritt. Merritt is director of tree care operations for He-Man Landscaping LLC, dba He-Man Services, based on Maui, Hawaii. He-Man is a Sperber Company and a 23-year TCIA member company with a branch in Lahaina.
We spoke to Merritt as he was driving into Lahaina on the morning of August 21, 13 days after wildfires burned through the town and the same day President Biden was to visit the island to see the damage firsthand.
“When the storm came through Monday night and Tuesday, fires broke out, one in Kula, which is upcountry on the slopes of Haleakala, and also here in Lahaina,” says Merritt.
“On Tuesday, we were working in Lahaina. We responded to a blow-down call, a big monkeypod. I was over there cutting it up, and within an hour-and-a-half of that, the whole place just torched.”
Thankfully, Merritt had left by then.
“The winds at that point were a steady 40 to 50 (mph) and gusting even higher. They were enough to push me around, and it was enough that it became a safety issue. It was actually like working in a tornado.”
According to weather reports after the fact, the winds were caused by a combination of Hurricane Dora, which was passing about 500 miles south of Hawaii, a high-pressure system to the north and a low-pressure system to the south.
A surreal scene
“The sky was blue except for all the dust in the air,” says Merritt. “But with all the power lines that came down – they spark, and with 50-mile-an-hour winds, you’re going to be hard pressed to stop a fire in conditions like that. So it just took off and roared through these old neighborhoods, the historic district of Lahaina, hundred-year-old buildings, it all went up just like matchsticks.
“It’s almost surreal. We’ve all seen disasters on TV – 911, Katrina and all that. Personally, I’ve never been close to one. I can tell you, it’s just a weird vibe; it’s almost impossible to describe.
“Some of these houses, where they were, you just look around and the only thing you see is water heaters and stackable washers and dryers. Everything else has been reduced to ash. It’s pretty eerie.”
Return to the scene
“They (authorities) shut everything down, and we moved all our equipment from the west side to the east side (of the island), because we weren’t sure when we’d be able to get back in,” Merritt continues. “But they opened it back up, and we’ve been in there since the middle of last week cleaning up storm damage for some of our commercial clients. We’re doing our best to take care of both wind-thrown and fire damaged trees for both residential and commercial accounts.”
He relates that prior to the fire, in Lahaina, he and a crew were at one of their commercial clients, Kahoma Village residential condominium complex, working on a damaged monkeypod tree. “When we were in there, there were trees that had uprooted from the wind and were actually leaning on the buildings. We didn’t have enough people, and it was too windy to work. I was going to go in later with the crews, chippers and chip trucks.”
Then the fire started. When they went back the next week to do an inventory, two of the three buildings had burned to the ground. “There are no buildings anymore, they’re gone,” he notes.
Monkeypods cause damage
“Some big monkeypods came down in the parking lot of the Lahaina Cannery Mall. That’s where the Safeway (grocery store) is. They’re trying to get the Safeway open again. Everything’s spoiled, because there was no power, no water, no refrigeration. The structure did not burn, and the National Guard, Red Cross and some local community groups set up aid stations right there.
“They called us to say, ‘This big monkeypod’s down, cars are crushed,’ and we came in to clear all that up so they could restore power and start stocking the store and bringing food and supplies in.
“There’s been no power, no water, no electricity, no phone, nothing for the people who are over there. So, in addition to continuing our support of existing clients, we’ve been responding to storm-damage and cleanup-type calls – it’s either been fire-damaged or wind-thrown trees – as best we can.”
Thoughts and prayers
We asked Merritt if he and the island’s tree care businesses need anything from the industry.
“At this point, it’s all become a massive cleanup effort. The community’s come together and people are getting the necessary supplies, first from local community leaders and residents helping one another, and then you’ve got all the government agencies here now, and aid stations are set up everywhere.
“Most of the displaced people have been put up in temporary shelters, and a lot of the visitor/tourist hotels are having people who have been displaced by the fire stay there.
“A whole lot of people lost everything, so it’s still a really big mess. I can’t really say that we need anything at this point, because I don’t know how extensive this is going to be. Thoughts and prayers, I guess, for all the people.”
Close to home
“I live in Makawao, a little town on the slopes of Haleakala, just below Kula, which is where the other fire occurred,” says Merritt.
“That Monday night, all night long the winds were howling. I woke up Tuesday morning to a big orange cloud and could see fire burning on the hillside up above the house, about a mile away. It was pretty close and some neighborhoods were evacuated, but we were safe where we were.
“The (Hawaii) Department of Land and Natural Resources jumped on that one pretty quick, with helicopters and water drops. We’ve been up there cutting blow down. We did that actually before we ended up back in Lahaina.”
Counting the losses
Merritt was driving into Lahaina and said the call would probably drop. Service was still spotty due to the lack of infrastructure in the wake of the winds and fires.
“The neighborhoods that burned, these were all multi-generations, where grandma and grandpa, sons and daughters and sons and daughters of sons and daughters were living in these homes, and they literally burned to the ground.
“They’ve been trying to keep as many people out of the area as possible, and it’s been difficult to have information flow out. It’s a recovery area now, and I don’t think they’ve completed their search and rescue and recovery of all those people they can’t find. They’ve been trying to keep it locked down as they continue operations.
“Insurance adjusters are starting their process,” Merritt says. “It’s going to take a long time to get it all cleaned up. But everybody’s working really well together. We’re doing the best we can.
The concept of ohana
“The concept of ohana, which means family in the Hawaiian language, is really, really strong. It’s where everybody comes together and helps everybody else. And that is probably the pervasive feeling here now. We’re all just supporting each other, whether we lived there (in Lahaina) or we’re all the way on the other side of the island.
“You know, Lahaina was the capital of the kingdom at one point. The history runs really deep, and the pride of the Hawaiian people also runs really deep,” says Merritt.
“So everybody is doing whatever they can to lend whatever assistance they have available, from food to taking care of people’s displaced pets, all the animals that also were affected. You see everybody adopting cats and dogs and looking for their owners and things like that.
“We’ll persevere through this, and who knows what it will look like when we come out on the other side,” Merritt concludes. “Our crews are doing a great job, and I’ll pass along our conversation.”
Don Staruk is TCI Magazine editor.