CNCounty News

Maui County residents rebuild their lives after deadly 2023 fire

Homeowner Gene Milne shows off his homesite June 26 in Lahaina at a press conference. He is one of the first property owners to start the rebuilding process after his newly built home was lost in the fire last year. Photo courtesy of Maui County

Key Takeaways

Clifton Akiyama, an 80-year-old Lahaina, Hawaii native, and his wife took a bag of potato chips, a couple of apples, some hand tools and their 13-year-old toothless chihuahua Buddy and drove away from their house of 35 years, which they would never return to. The Akiyama’s was one of the more than 4,000 homes destroyed across Maui County in the August 2023 Lahaina wildfire, which resulted in more than 100 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century. 

“I try not to think about what we don’t have,” Akiyama said. “But we lost a whole bunch, about 60 years of building up my so-called assets, my wealth, it was wiped out in one night.” 

For six months after the wildfire, the Akiyamas were staying in a hotel through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) non-congregate sheltering program. Since then, they’ve been living in an abandoned house.

“Right now, we’re technically homeless,” Akiyama said. “But I found a friend of a friend who knew of an abandoned house that no one was living in, and the owners allowed my wife and I to stay here with our dog … I got lucky, so we have a roof over our head for now.”

In November 2023, Akiyama realized that it would be “a while” before they were able to rebuild their home on their property (it could take several months for the waste and water systems in Lahaina to be fully restored, according to the Maui Department of Water Supply) so he went to “the other side of the island,” roughly 22 miles outside of the fire zone, and entered a housing lottery through Towne Realty of Hawaii for one of the 164 single-family homes it was developing in the community of Kehalani.

Construction began in January on Akiyama’s new home. It is almost finished and he hopes to move in later this month. He said he’s luckier than most. Ten months after the wildfire, thousands of people are still displaced, and expect to be for the foreseeable future. That’s why the county’s new expedited permitting process is so important for people, “to compress the time so they can get in quicker,” Akiyama said. 

Maui County contracted 4LEAF, a development services firm that specializes in Fire Recovery Services, to operate its new Recovery Permit Center, which was created to expedite permitting specifically for people affected by the wildfire. 4LEAF has also operated fire recovery permitting programs for the California counties of Sonoma and Santa Cruz, the town of Paradise, Calif. and Jackson County, Ore. 

The plan review for the permitting process now takes roughly 10 business days, according to Mike Renner, 4LEAF’s director of development recovery services.

Akiyama will go through the expedited permitting process for a duplex unit on his Lahaina property, where he is set to house two sets of neighbors who don’t have long-term housing. He also plans to rebuild his primary residence on the same property eventually, he added. 

Atom Kasprzycki, a Lahaina architect, co-owns Kasprzycki Designs, which is creating design plans for residents affected by the wildfire, including Akiyama, and helping them with the permitting process, at no cost. The same services through the architecture firm traditionally start at $40,000 per project. 

Kasprzycki, whose father was killed in the wildfire, is calling the initiative “Ho’ola Lahaina Project.” In Hawaiian, “Ho’ola” means “to revive” or “to heal.” Akiyama heard about Kasprzycki’s free assistance through what he refers to as “the coconut wire,” or word of mouth, while he was in the FEMA program.    

“We’re working with our neighbors and our friends and the community and it’s definitely a different process a little bit,” Kasprzycki said. “We’re seeing a lot of people be kind of uplifted with hope.

“I lost my dad in the fire — he didn’t make it out — so that was a hardship for our family and a traumatic experience, and there’s a little healing coming out of helping the community and just getting back to our roots.”

The Kasprzycki Designs Team has finished over 42 schematic designs for 25 client groups; the majority of the remaining plan sets are expected to be completed over the next several months. One of Kasprzycki’s clients is the first person to start rebuilding in the disaster zone. He poured his house slab on June 14.

The Permit Recovery Center has issued 23 rebuild permits so far, according to Renner. 

“We’re the unfortunate experts in this business,” Renner said. “It’s not something you seek to do, but the permitting process is a small piece of people losing their homes, everything in their homes, their lives, their memories, so if we can help ease the process and make permitting a little quicker and a little more transparent and personalize the process a little bit, that’s what my goal is. 

“It’s the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done in my career, when you get people back in their homes and they invite you to their blessing or barbecue.”

Permit applications are submitted and reviewed online, but 4LEAF staff are there to guide people through the process, according to Renner. 

“What we’re seeing the most of right now are just walk-in folks that want to sit down and talk about their project, about the process,” Renner said. “’What are my zoning regulations? What can I build back? What are my next steps?’”  

Speeding up the permitting process is one small way Maui County is helping residents rebuild their homes and lives, according to Renner. For Akiyama, a new home won’t just mean finally having a long-term roof over his, his wife and Buddy’s heads, but also a place to park his new fishing boat, which he recently bought after his was destroyed in the wildfire. 

“I ordered a fishing boat,” Akiyama said. “It’s on the island, because I have no place to park it yet, but when I move into my house, I’ll be building the homes I plan to build and I’m going to start fishing, and I’ll get started with the rest of my life.”

 

Maui County bolsters 2025 budget for fire department, landfill and more

Last month, Maui County Council approved a $1.7 billion budget for 2025, prioritizing aid to the ongoing recovery of Lahaina, upgrades to wildfire mitigation, social services and housing solutions for the 12,000 residents displaced by the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire that killed 102 people, Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

The budget includes a $36 million loan for a low-income rental housing project in Lahaina.

The county council also beefed up the Maui Emergency Management Agency, increasing its overall number of positions to 22 from nine and providing $300,000 in an updated emergency operations center plan and incident management team development.

The Maui Fire Department was given more than $1 million for 18 new positions in the fire and rescue operations program, along with funding for four positions in the fire prevention program and money for new vehicles and a station in Haiku.

The council also put $33.4 million in the budget for a permanent landfill site for fire debris, as a temporary landfill is filling up.

The budget bill was shepherded by Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, vice-chair of the Council and chair of the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee.

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