LAHAINA, HI. (WIAT) — Just over three months ago, Lahaina, Hawaii, was scorched by uncontrollable wildfires.
Three months later, its people are still reeling from the events of early August and are left to pick up the pieces.
Lahaina once marked new beginnings for Dave Fincher. Fincher was working as a bartender and restaurant manager in Atlanta, Georgia, when he knew it was time for a change.
“My house was on the same street, a quarter mile from the house that I grew up in,” Fincher said. “I knew that if I didn’t shake things up dramatically, I would probably end up living on that street maybe the rest of my life.”
One night, his friend Javi Barberi, who lived in Hawaii, texted him with an opportunity. Three weeks later, Fincher said he was on a one-way flight to Lahaina. Today, he has lived there for 15 years.
In 2017, both locations were visited by Guy Fieri on his show Diners, Drive-ins, & Dives on the Food Network.
In 2018, Fincher and his business partners took over a pre-existing restaurant, Mala Ocean Tavern. It is the only restaurant of the three that survived the fires.
August 8 – The Day of the Fires
August 8 was the day fires broke out in Lahaina. The wind that would later stir the fires into more of a frenzy had already knocked down power lines; At 5 a.m. the whole city lost power and cell service.
“Our situational awareness with regard to the fire was pretty up to speed because you can smell the smoke and you can hear sirens. And whenever there’s a fire, there’s sirens,” Fincher said. “We lived between town and the fire station. All the fire trucks have to drive past us to get to Lahaina. So, we were aware something was going on pretty early.”
Fincher said from where he lived with his family – his wife, his mother-in-law, 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son – in the northern part of the city across from the safeway, they knew there was a fire around lunchtime.
“We did have some warning, but really, it was only if you’re paying attention because a lot of people did not know there was a fire,” Fincher said.
However, Fincher said that the main reason many in the city did not act immediately is because fires weren’t totally uncommon.
“This was the fifth major fire in Lahaina that I experienced,” Fincher said. “Now, generally, it was always outside of town. It was in the fields that surround (Lahaina) because it used to be a plantation town.”
“All these dried grassy fields extend all the way up to the mountains, and those fields are the ones that (usually) burned. So you (can) have a really big fire with not a whole lot of structural damage. And it can burn acres and acres of those fields without really destroying any homes.”
Prior to August 8, Fincher said the people there had never had reason to evacuate.
“That’s the reason people didn’t evacuate sooner. That’s 100% why,” he said. “I think a lot of people just assumed that the Maui Fire Department had it under control.”
While Fincher praised the Maui Fire Department for their expertise and hard work, there was only so much they could do. While there was daylight, firefighters were able to work on the ground while helicopters worked by dropping water from the air. However, when night hit, the helicopters could no longer fly safely.
“Suddenly you don’t have these helicopters dumping water, so that means it’s just (work) from the ground,” Fincher said.
Additionally, the primary residential road in town, Lahainaluna Road, would also later prove to be an obstacle.
“The thing about Lahaina, and Hawaii in general, there’s not a lot of different routes to get to the same place,” Fincher said. “There’s one way in and one way out; one way north, one way south … It creates massive, massive congestion whenever there is a lot of people on the roads, like in an evacuation, for example. And that’s what happened.”
August 8 – Fincher’s Experience
Overlooking the city from his yard, Fincher stood with a military ballistic helmet strapped on his head as shingles blew off of roofs and through the air. His family had made plans to go north should they need to evacuate; His mother-in-law was packing up items in case they needed to leave, alongside his wife.
Evaluating how the fire looked at the time, Fincher decided to go to Down the Hatch and set up a generator so they wouldn’t lose the food in the walk-ins. However, once he made it to the restaurant, he came face-to-face with the escalating weather.
“While I was there, the wind was howling so much that it ripped the roof off the building,” Fincher said.
That was enough to send Fincher and his general manager, Mike Loudermilk, to his brother-in-law’s home at on the south edge of the same neighborhood Fincher’s family lived in. By then, it was around 5:30 p.m.
Fincher said his brother-in-law’s roommates assured them that things seemed to be getting better, despite the conditions.
“We had the wrong perception of what was actually happening,” Fincher said.
Nonetheless, around 7 p.m., Fincher and Loudermilk went back into town to refill the generator. The two hopped in Fincher’s Jeep Wrangler with a can of gasoline in the back, planning to drive the same route they took earlier just a mile and a half down the road.
“We drive over the bridge and straight into hell,” Fincher said. “It went from daylight to pitch blackness because the sky was completely black with all the smoke. There were houses on all sides of us completely engulfed in flames.
“And we’re in an open Jeep Wrangler. And the gas can we had in the back had just rolled onto the floor and spilled. So, we’ve got no roof, we’ve got gasoline everywhere and we’re driving into what is clearly a massive inferno.”
Fincher said the both of them looked around in shock. At that moment, it became clear that going forward was no longer an option. When they hit a thick wall of smoke, Fincher said they decided to back out and go home.
“We’re looking at things burning and we’re just looking around and just in shock of what’s happening to the town,” Fincher said. “Little did I know … 200 feet in front of us through that smoke, there were countless people being burned to death … in front of the outlets on Front Street.”
“You probably heard about a bunch of people jumping in the water, spending the night in the water and all this stuff. That’s what was going on. Right in front of us. But we had no idea.”
The scene Fincher painted of the drive back home was a harrowing one – marred with telephone poles strewn across the highway, blocking the roads to get back to his house. Law enforcement refused to let Fincher drive back the way he came. Following the direction of the cops in the area, Fincher and Loudermilk ended up south of Lahaina, while his house sat up north.
“We were trying to get through … and the cops just kept telling us ‘You can’t go back there,’” he said. “So we decided to park the vehicle on the side of the road and walk.”
Backpacks on, water in hand, the two began their trek back to Fincher’s home in the darkness of 7:30 p.m. Hundreds of cars lined the shoulders of the road – families who had evacuated, but had nowhere to go. Loudermilk and Fincher weaved in and out, hiking discreetly to their location.
“We just didn’t want to be seen because we didn’t want to be turned around,” Fincher said. “We had to get to my house. And that in itself was quite an odyssey.”
August 8 – The Odyssey
“It took two and a half hours to get there.”
The time was 9:30 p.m. By then, the sun had long been gone from the sky. What was left was smoke and ashes, and the light of a blazing fire.
“We saw a lot of pretty horrific stuff,” Fincher said. “We saw animals on fire. We saw cars with people in them on fire … There was nothing in those neighborhoods that was taller than my waist. Everything had been destroyed.”
The wind was picking up. Embers were striking their backs. Suddenly, Loudermilk grabbed Fincher and told him to get down.
Lying on the hot asphalt, Fincher said a fire-filled wind swept over them.
“And I thought we were dead because the air was so hot you couldn’t breathe,” Fincher said.
When the wind stopped, and the two stood, Fincher could see a house on fire in the distance.
“There’s one house on my street burning and I can’t tell what house it is, but it looks like it could be where my house is. And I’m like, I have to know if that’s my house … And I just kept running forward,” Fincher said, despite his friend’s best efforts to keep him back.
An “ammo enthusiast,” Fincher could hear ammo cooking off in the fire as he neared the house. That’s when he knew it was his home he was running towards.
“In that moment, when I knew it was my house, I kind of lost all sense for a moment. And I kept running forward because I didn’t know if my family was still in there,” he said.
As he ran, his shoes began sticking to the asphalt; His lungs began to burn and he began to collapse. That’s when he felt someone grab his backpack and pushed him forward; It was Loudermilk, guiding him through the other side of the wall of smoke.
“I’m telling you, he saved my life,” Fincher said. “If I had gone down there, I would not have gotten up again.”
On the other side of the smoke, Fincher and Loudermilk were able to grab a ride with a firefighter who was evacuating,
“I remember sitting in the backseat of this firetruck … And I ask (the firefighter), ‘Is this the worst fire Lahaina’s ever had?’” Fincher said. “And he said, ‘This is the worst fire Hawaii has ever had.’”
That night, Fincher said he slept on a doormat on the balcony of a friend’s apartment. As he looked out into the smoky orange climbing the landscape, he said he had one thought:
“I’m just thinking, my family’s in there somewhere.”
August 9 – Reunited
“It’s gone. Lahaina’s gone.”
Those are the words Fincher awoke to the morning after the fires. He had picked up bits and pieces of a conversation from an EMS friend who was visiting the apartment downstairs.
“There’s so many bodies,” he could hear her say.
“That was the moment when I knew that it was really bad,” Fincher said.
Borrowing a car from a friend, Fincher left the apartment in search of his family. He primarily began by searching in parking lots, where many were congregating, but to no avail.
“I was driving south towards Kaanapali, which is just north of Lahaina,” Fincher said. “I was just watching all the oncoming traffic as I was driving south, and I saw them driving north.”
It was their Australian shepherd, Lily, who liked to stand on the center console, that grabbed Fincher’s attention.
“I almost did a full U-turn right in the middle of the highway to catch up to them,” Fincher said. “But I resisted. I knew they were alive.”
Soon, they were reunited – Fincher, his wife, his two children, his mother-in-law and his two dogs.
“I was so purely happy that nothing else mattered at that moment, because I saw they were okay,” Fincher said.
“I have a 3-year-old girl … I mean, she means everything to me. Like, I can’t quite articulate it, but I’ve never loved anything so much as I love that little girl … God, when I saw that they were okay, it was everything,” Fincher said. “Suddenly, despite all the death and destruction, everything was okay.”
In the days following the fires, Fincher said their main objective was to get out of Lahaina and get to the other side of the island.
“It was the wild west,” Fincher said, later describing his family’s journey out of Lahaina, riddled by closed gas stations, couch surfing and uncertainty.
Eventually, Fincher and his family made it to Barberi’s house where they stayed for a time.
Soon after, Fincher, Barberi and Juan Ricci, a contractor for their restaurants, decided they needed to go back to Lahaina and check on the store. With them, they brought water for the people still in Lahaina.
When they arrived, Fincher said the town was pitch black, smoldering and haunted by “Lahaina ghosts,” as Fincher called them, people he said were “clearly in distress” and “adrift.”
“I was struck while I was standing there in the rubble of the restaurant by how much of the sky I could see because the buildings were gone,” Fincher said.
In the days following, Fincher made trips back to his house, retrieving what he could from the remains. One thing he couldn’t find: his wedding ring, which he had left on the bathroom sink before leaving the house the morning of the fires.
“When I left, I didn’t know I was leaving for the last time,” he said.
Lahaina and the Finchers today
As of November, Fincher and his family are living in a hotel in Kahana, thanks to the Red Cross, while Fincher works to build his family a new home.
“The Red Cross has been very, very admirable in all of this … We get three meals a day and we’ve been in a room and we’re quite comfortable considering we’re refugees,” Fincher said.
Just three days after the fires, Fincher said he was able to start building on some land a friend owned. Now, he said they are nearing completion.
“We’re incredibly, incredibly lucky that we have a space to (build),” Fincher said. “I had some money in savings, so I was able to start buying lumber and things immediately.
“We would (also) like to rebuild the restaurants, but it’s going to be years until you can build in Lahaina. I’ve been told by people … it’s going to be at least five years, maybe longer.”
Fincher said Lahaina will never be “normal” again and he acknowledged many are still reeling from the events of August 8.
“I have to assume there’s a lot of people who still do not have what they need,” Fincher said. “Just like with anything else, you know, the immediate attention given to this horrific event was substantial, and it was international news. Time marches on to the next tragedy pretty quickly. In that regard, I do feel like the attention has faded.”
In a town of people who largely work in the hospitality industry and live “paycheck to paycheck,” returning to a sense of normalcy will take time, but having visitors can help. Ultimately, Fincher urged people to not be scared to spend their vacation in Hawaii and Lahaina.
“People are struggling. And if no one comes here to spend their tourist dollars, then people are going to struggle even more,” said Fincher.
Fincher had just one stipulation.
“When you do come here, just kind of keep in mind that the residents of this island have suffered a tremendous trauma,” he said. “I get it … you’re on vacation. But at the same time, all the people in the hotel with you are refugees and they’re traumatized.”
Fincher’s brother, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, has started a GoFundMe to support Fincher and his family as they rebuild their homes – and their lives – in Hawaii. The GoFundMe can be found here.
Additionally, the websites for Down the Hatch and Breakwall Shave Ice have linked out to a Lahaina Fire Fund, which can be accessed here.
If you visit Hawaii anytime soon, you might just find Fincher hosting karaoke and trivia at Pizza Paradiso, a restaurant owned by some of his business partners, wearing his wedding ring that his wife miraculously recovered from the ashes of his home just two weeks ago.