“Everything was exploding around us; it was like a war zone.
“It was 4:30 [p.m.] and it was dark. It was just chaos. No one knew what to do.”
Less than an hour from smelling smoke, Valerye Zimmerman and her neighbors in Lahaina, Maui, were running for their lives.
The Maui wildfires that broke out early last week are now the deadliest in the United States in more than a century, according to the National Fire Protection Association, surpassing California’s 2018 Camp Fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Zimmerman (nee Huff), formerly of Sequim, and her husband Eric were able to flee from their home on Front Street, on Lahaina’s western waterfront, with their dog and some supplies, and not much else.
“We all waited too long,” Zimmerman said. “We were all waiting to be told to leave.”
As of early Monday, Aug. 14, the death toll in Maui is at 96, according to the Maui Police Department.
“The fatalities are going to be so much higher,” Zimmerman said.
“Lahaina’s just not there anymore.”
Fueled by a high-pressure system north of the Hawaiian Islands and Hurricane Dora in early August, a series of smaller wildfires broke out across several of the islands. On Aug. 7, winds and dry conditions created a virtual matchstick of many parts of the islands’ leeward portions.
Zimmerman said that Tuesday, Aug. 8 — the day fires destroyed most of the historic town of Lahaina — starting with severe winds that severed power. She and Eric heard a brush fire had been put out and had gone shopping for some supplies at the grocery store.
“We were just told it was going to be windy that day,” she said.
Then, in the afternoon, the smoke rolled in. Within an hour of smelling the smoke, hot ash started falling from the sky, igniting tees.
“There was black smoke up in the air, and the blue skies — you’d think it’s okay,” Zimmerman recalled. “[But] when I saw the hot ash, I just ran.”
Zimmerman grabbed her backpack and dog and started to run. Eric went back to their home — new to the Zimmermans for about a year — to get more supplies and help neighbors, so Zimmerman kept moving.
“By the time he went back to our place trees were already on fire,” she said.
She said she left verbal “bread crumbs” for him, telling neighbors and passers-by where he could find her.
Reunited a short time later, Zimmerman said Eric was “covered in soot.”
Zimmerman said she’d recently seen a documentary about the 2018 fire that famously destroyed the town of Paradise; that fire killed 85.
“I told Eric, ‘We’ve got to get out of here, it’s just like that’,” she said.
Zimmerman, a 2006 Sequim High grad who starred on the SHS basketball team and on number of state qualifying cross country squads coached by her father Harold, attended Washington State University. After moving to Maui in 2010, she met Eric, who was working as a bartender.
The couple lived on the island for about seven years before moving back to Sequim for a couple of years before returning to Maui in 2020.
They both work at Merriman’s, a restaurant in Kapalua about 20 minutes north of a house they bought about a year ago in the heart of Lahaina.
“We were so excited not going to have to keep moving,” Zimmerman said.
The couple last week were able to secure lodgings from a friend and are back at work helping serve food — and 900 meals every day.
“[We’ve been] just been trying to stay busy; it’s just so much to process,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone’s been taking really good care of each other on the west side.”
That includes some folks hopping on jet skis and shuttling supplies across the water from Moloka‘i.
Zimmerman’s mother Erin Huff, who with Harold now live in Indiana, said, “I feel really helpless because there’s nothing I can really do.”
Zimmerman said that, despite the devastation, she and Eric want to stay.
“We love Lahaina; we (would not) just not leave our community, but also don’t want to be in the way,” she said.
But getting back to normal will take quite some time, Zimmerman said. Neighbors are being told it’ll be another month to establish normal phone service and are instead using what she called “coconut wireless” — word of mouth — to let others know about emergency services.
Friends of the Zimmermans, some of whom don’t know each other, came together to start a GoFundMe to help the couple rebuild; see gofund.me/02ddc981.
“The silver lining is, it’s good to see people taking care of each other,” she said. “Tragedy brings people together.”
Maui fires: How to help
A wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui has killed dozens of people and wounded dozens more, destroying communities such as the historic town of Lahaina.
Firefighters continue to battle the blaze, and officials say the death toll may increase as rescuers reach other parts of the island.
Several organizations and businesses in Hawaii have set up funds to assist the people affected by the fires. Here’s how you can help:
Maui Food Bank
The Maui Food Bank has two distribution sites — Calvary Chapel South Maui and King’s Cathedral — and accepts online donations: mauifoodbank.org/donate
Hawaii Community Foundation
The Hawaii Office of the Governor is directing donors to the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund, a resource helping communities affected by the wildfires: hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/maui-strong
Aloha United Way
This Honolulu-based nonprofit organization has set up a Maui Relief Fund, with funds going directly toward efforts supporting victims of the fires: ignite.stratuslive.com/auw/get-involved/donate/mauirelief
The popular crowdsourcing GoFundMe site has created a centralized hub of verified fundraisers for various relief efforts: gofundme.com/c/act/wildfire-relief/maui
Kākoʻo Maui fund
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and the Alaka`ina Foundation Family of Companies will reportedly match up to $250,000 donated for the fund that goes to Maui organizations supporting relief efforts: hawaiiancouncil.org/maui