The emotional toll of clearing debris from the Maui wildfires 2 months later

The EPA developed a cultural monitoring program to aid in the cleanup process.

October 8, 2023, 6:30 AM

Every morning, as another sunrise sets paradise aglow, the crew responsible for the Maui wildfire cleanup meets in a grocery store parking lot to say a "pule," a Hawaiian blessing meant to protect them from another day's work.

Emotions continue to run high as workers outfitted in hazmat suits painstakingly comb through the rubble -- many times still containing the remains of humans that perished in the wildfires that started on Aug. 8, Steve Calanog, the incident commander for the Environmental Protection Agency's field operation in Maui, which is leading the cleanup and debris removal, told ABC News.

It has been two months since wildfires devastated the island, wiping out the historic neighborhood of Lahaina, the former home of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and killing nearly 100 people -- many still missing. Tourism on the island remains stalled. Some of the ritziest and most famous resorts continue to house displaced residents. The hardest-hit regions still look and smell of disaster, Calanog said.

The EPA is about 70% done with Phase 1 of the cleanup, which involves removing hazardous materials left in the aftermath of the fire -- items that were damaged, burned and could pose a substantial threat of release such as compressed gas cylinders, paint, solvents, chemical containers, fertilizers, pesticides and, sometimes, radiologic devices as well as ammunition, Calanog said. Many of the residential and commercial properties are also equipped with solar power, and the lithium-ion batteries used for energy storage pose a considerable risk.

PHOTO: Lahaina residents and their supporters hold signs and flags at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on Oct. 3, 2023, at a news conference.
Lahaina residents and their supporters hold signs and flags at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on Oct. 3, 2023, at a news conference about a petition asking Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to delay plans to reopen a portion of West Maui to tourism starting this weekend. The petition signed by more than 14,000 people comes amid a fierce and anguished debate over when travelers should return to the region, home to the historic town of Lahaina that was destroyed in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
Audrey McAvoy/AP

The logistics of shipping the hazardous material away is complicated compared to the mainland, where it can be transported over freight fairly easily. All of the hazardous material will be shipped back to the mainland for processing at specialized disposal facilities, Calanog said.

There was also a mass exodus of displaced residents who left for the mainland, and whether they come back will remain to be seen, Lisa Benton-Short, professor of geography at George Washington University, told ABC News.

Due to the number of lives the fire took, the immediate cleanup response was delayed by about two weeks as search and rescue teams looked for human remains, Calanog said. As recent as last week, cleanup crews were still finding human remains, Calanog told ABC News.

The continued reminder of the high death toll is contributing to the emotional impact of the cleanup, Calanog said.

"It is hard, emotionally," he said.

A displaced resident walks while searching for personal items at the wildfire destroyed home where he lived on Oct. 5, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Even before the EPA arrived on the scene in Maui, they knew it was going to be "a uniquely different fire" with much different demands for cleanup than they were used to, said Calanog, who has been responding to fires on the West Coast as part of the EPA's emergency response team in San Francisco for the past 15 years.

Native Hawaiian culture is playing a prominent role in the cleanup and rebuilding process. It will likely take a long time for official plans to be drawn for reconstruction that honors the cultural and historical significance of the neighborhoods that were lost, Aaron Poentis, a disaster restoration expert and regional account manager at First Onsite Property Restoration, a Honolulu-based building restoration service, told ABC News.

"You want to be rebuilding in ways that are resilient and equitable, taking into account the longer-term interests of the community," Benton-Short said, emphasizing that the voices of low-income Native Hawaiians need to be heard when making those plans.

Volunteers from Samaritan's Purse help displaced residents search for meaningful personal items at their wildfire destroyed home on Oct. 5, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Maui wildfires were the first major wildland fire to ever take place in Hawaii, and the fact that it decimated Lahaina, a neighborhood with such cultural and historical significance to the native Hawaiian community, prompted the EPA to incorporate cultural advisers into every step of the planning, Calanog said.

Early in the process, the EPA developed a cultural monitoring program to aid in the process. Cultural monitors are assigned to teams to identify and guard culturally significant sites and artifacts, and at least 50% of field crews and hazmat removal teams are comprised of people who live on the island, Calanog said.

Every member of the EPA team who traveled from the mainland is required to undergo cultural training, in which cultural leaders and experts from the University of Hawaii teach them about the customs and traditions of Hawaiian culture and how to respect them, Calanog said.

"It's a big eye-opener," he said. "Even I have sat through four or five of these classes, and I'm always learning something about Hawaiian culture that is so pertinent to how we conduct ourselves."

In this Aug. 11, 2023, file photo, the iconic Banyan tree stands among the rubble of burned buildings days after a wildfire swept through the city, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, FILE

Maui is a tight-knit community, with connections fueled by the spirit of "Ohana," the Hawaiian word for "family." But because many on the crew are from the island, they are acutely aware of who used to live in the homes they are working on or the sites in which loved ones perished, Calanog said.

The feeling of Ohana has even infiltrated the visiting EPA crews, some of whom have expressed resistance in leaving because they have developed such close ties and and "deep, reverent respect" with the locals, Calanog said.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to respond to communities in need," he said.

While feelings like shock, grief and mourning continue to prevail, what is emerging even stronger is the island's desire to rebuild, he said.

Phase 2 of the process will hand over responsibility to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee the larger debris removals for up to a year, Calanog said.

Displaced residents search for personal items in the rubble of the wildfire destroyed home where they lived, as volunteers from Samaritan's Purse assist, on Oct. 5, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Until then, the pule prayer, led by cultural and spiritual leaders from the community in the Safeway parking lot every morning, has become a tradition the EPA workers look forward to.

"It's powerful. It's moving," he said. "It's short, but when we understand the intent -- they're looking to protect us."

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