Jennifer Simpson was ready for a languid beach vacation after steering her small business through the Covid pandemic. Her two teenagers were working their first summer jobs, so the whole family also needed together time.
She eagerly booked that escape for early August to Lahaina, Hawaii, where her partner, Alex Stein, has family. Less than two days later, the four were among thousands scrambling to flee the deadliest U.S. fire in the last century, as 80% of Lahaina burned to charred embers.
“I have hugely mixed feelings of tremendous gratitude and relief that we made it out safely,” she said, “but heartbreak about the extent of the devastation” in the small city of 12,700 people that supports more than two million tourists a year.
Some 850 people remain missing, and only 115 bodies have been found as of Monday — with far fewer identified. The conflagration devastated the local community as well, with preliminary federal damage estimates topping $5 billion.
Simpson, CEO of Integrated Work in Boulder, a leadership and strategy consultancy, found a great deal on a condo in far south Lahaina, and so they stayed there rather than near her partner’s family in northern Lahaina or the heart of town near Front Street.
Looking back, she thinks that seemingly insignificant choice, plus an equally casual change in snorkeling plans and being switched from the electric car they wanted to a plug-in hybrid car, “probably saved our lives.”
Their first day was everything they wanted. Majestic ocean views in one direction, lush mountains in another, brilliant tropical foliage, and a massive volcano overlooking it all.
They swam off the private beach, and the kids — Martin Simpson Teplin, almost 19 and a sophomore at Drexel University, and Helyn Simpson Teplin, 15 and a sophomore at Fairview High — wandered off to explore the hopping street life on Front Street.
That night, on Aug.7, Simpson lay out on the back deck “looking at the endless sky and feeling so grateful and blessed to be living this life. I could feel how lucky I was.”
It was different the next morning. Although it would be hours before they knew what was happening, the wind had picked up as Hurricane Dora bypassed Maui well to the southwest, downing power lines. That meant electricity was out, an inconvenience that in hindsight was a harbinger.
They had a snorkeling excursion planned, however, and set off about 6:15 a.m., about 20 minutes before the first report of a small brushfire came in. They reached the harbor only to find the trip had been canceled because of the already raging wind and surf.
At about 7:30 a.m., they received a call from Stein’s brother, a 40-year business owner in Lahaina, about the small blaze that was already threatening his business, along with a suggestion not to return to town for a while.
Instead, they headed to the Haleakala volcano for a morning of sightseeing. Halfway up, the road was blocked by a wind-downed tree, so they turned around. There were still no emergency notices on their cell phones, and reports said the fire was small and being contained.
The four headed back to town, but were quickly trapped in “horrible multi-miles of gridlock traffic” for three hours as overwhelmed police sent “tens of thousands of people in thousands of cars going round in a circle with only one exit and no signage about where the exit was,” Simpson recalled. Their car shook from the wind.
Exhausted, they napped after finally returning to their condo. Then, as Simpson was starting a Scrabble game with her son Martin, a property manager pounded on the door and told them to evacuate because a growing fire was in the next subdivision.
The little brushfire of the morning had indeed been contained by 10 a.m., but blew up again about 3:30 p.m., according to news accounts, and rapidly moved downhill.
Immediately recalling the huge Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes at the end of 2021, and how her own South Boulder neighborhood had been evacuated in March 2022 when a fire broke out around the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) amid near-record temperatures, the family raced to pack up.
But she and Stein waffled a bit as they loaded the car, remembering the earlier traffic jam. “My 15-year-old daughter knew the only answer to the ‘what should we do’ question was, ‘We GO,’” recalled Simpson.
All of Lahaina, however, was now fleeing. It took the family 30 minutes to inch their way to the highway — less than two blocks away — and another 30 minutes to clear Lahaina and make it to the safety of Kihei, a few towns to the south.
Because they hastened out of town, Simpson said they saw no flames, just choking billows of smoke behind them. They drove over downed but live power lines and around fallen trees. Later they learned that the condo they fled had indeed burned down soon after they left.
Yet because cell phone service was now out and they escaped ahead of the wall of flames, they didn’t know for days the full extent of the onrushing disaster and how close a call it had been.
During that time, Simpson recalled, “there was no news other than what we could see with our own eyes or cobble together from the stories of others who had left.”
They heard of the “horrible, horrible choices” people had to make, of people forced to leave behind infirm elderly relatives; large families who couldn’t fit everyone into the car; the many families who abandoned cars stuck in traffic for the nearby ocean.
Simpson credits her family’s and Stein’s survival to “twists of events that made the difference between life and death.”
Choosing that condo in south Lahaina meant they didn’t have to run the gauntlet of fire and burning cars on the highway farther north; changing the day of the snorkeling trip— most importantly — meant the four were together all day and not scattered through town; while the hybrid car ensured they didn’t become stranded in the long stall of cars as they fled.
“If we hadn’t been all together, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without them,” she said. “Many people who didn’t leave and died didn’t know where their families were” without cell service.
For the next several days until her children could return home, and then until she and Stein returned, they tried to appreciate the beauty the remainder of Maui offers because “staying in our hotel and doing nothing wasn’t going to help.”
They donated at local shelters, gathered links and started considering how to organize help, though sharing anything through social media was hard until she left the island. That’s Simpson’s focus now.
She noted that Maui’s emergency warning systems were geared towards tsunamis and hurricanes, not catastrophic wildfires, and that police coordination fell apart as people fled.
“This was a disaster so unimaginable that no one was prepared for anything remotely like this,” she said, and “brittle systems break down fast.”
Safely back at home, Simpson has begun to reflect. She said she draws on her company’s work in creating flexible systems for companies, plus her role as editor-at-large of The Carbon Almanac: It’s Not Too Late. The 2022 book is a global collaboration among hundreds of writers, researchers and thinkers about climate change.
Resilient systems, she believes, should be flexible enough to handle the expected — hurricanes in Hawaii, Chinook winds in Boulder — and perhaps the less expected, such as hurricanes and Chinooks combined with climate-fueled drought.
“Things that could have worked smoothly in Lahaina and made a difference just didn’t,” Simpson said. “But it was so viscerally palpable in Lahaina that the most resilient system of all was one of family and community coming together to pitch in when nothing else seemed to be working just right.”
For a deeper account of Simpson’s experience, you can read her whole story here. Simpson also provides a suggested list of organizations and people to donate to. The State of Hawaii is cautioning people who want to donate to ensure a charity’s legitimacy by checking its registration with the Department of the Attorney General. You can also verify its credibility through independent online sources such as IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search, Charity Navigator and DCCA Business Search. Honolulu Civil Beat has published a running list of how people can help and donate.