Deadly Lahaina fire hits home for local residents

Claremont resident Brian Worley took this photo August 8 as the Lahaina fire approached his rented oceanfront home. Front Street, in foreground, became an escape route for many. Photo/by Brian Worley

by Steven Felschundneff |

At about 8:30 p.m. August 8, longtime Claremont resident Brian Worley walked out of the luxury beachfront home he had rented for the week in Lahaina, Hawaii on the island of Maui, and noticed the growing fire he had been monitoring all day was now bearing down on him. He asked a passing policeman if he and his family should evacuate, and the officer replied, “I would if I were you.”

Earlier that day, Scripps College junior Keeana Villamar’s family frantically left their modest working-class home in Lahaina moments before the fire consumed everything on their street. They left so quickly that all they escaped with were the clothes they were wearing and the family dog. While attempting to flee they got caught in a traffic jam, and once again the flames surrounded them. Fortunately the traffic eased just enough that they were able to escape, but the fire came so close that the heat singed the back of their car.

We now know that the Lahaina fire is the deadliest U.S. blaze in over a century, with 111 confirmed fatalities as of Thursday morning and hundreds still missing. It almost completely leveled the historic city on Maui’s western coast.

The August 8 fire in Lahaina as seen from Susan and Bob Warren’s hotel room in Kaanapali, Maui. Photo/by Susan Warren

Villamar, who summered in Claremont to earn extra school money, monitored the disaster unfolding in her hometown from afar, not knowing if her family had made it out in time. She said it was two nerve-racking days before she finally got word they were alive — but that her home was gone.

“I am just so grateful they have made it out and they weren’t physically harmed, but I just feel for everyone who is missing or dead,” Villamar said.

Tuesday, August 8 began with a hurricane warning from local officials. It was expected to be a category 1 with strong winds of 74 to 95 mph, but seemed to pose little threat in a region that is accustomed to storms. Keeana Villamar’s father Marcelo, 51, mother Alma, 54, and sister Yna, 27, all went to work while her brother Mark, 15, headed off to school, leaving her grandmother Luzviminda Agoo, 79, at home.

Because communication has been sporadic, Keeana Villamar is still unclear on the details, but at some point that afternoon everyone reconvened at home and decided to leave. Yna Villamar got a head start and was able to make it to the other side of the island before the main road was closed. Everyone else piled into the family car for the harrowing ride, which was almost their last. They ended up hunkering down at the local church until that building also had to be evacuated.

Worley and his wife Pam had rented the beach house to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with their entire family. Eight people, including the Worleys, their daughters and spouses, and two grandchildren, arrived on Thursday, August 3 for a week of beaches and sightseeing.

The morning of August 8 was very windy, and power was intermittent until it went out for good at 6 a.m. All day they had no power, no cell phone reception, and no internet access. That afternoon Worley became aware that a fire had started. The first photo he has of the smoke was taken a 3:54 p.m.

Around 6:30 or 7 p.m. he said it really started to get scary. The family watched as the fire grew progressively worse. But they were not overly concerned because the winds were blowing the fire and the smoke in the opposite direction of the house.

Brian Worley and his wife Pam took their family to Lahaina to celebrate the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary but were forced to evacuate as a result of the August 8 fire. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

“It was just getting darker and more ominous with the continuous cacophony of exploding propane tanks,” Worley said. “Which was like bombs going off, that truly fed the fire.”

As he was standing outside the home after speaking with a police officer, a young man walked by, completely drenched. He told Worley he was one of many who had fled the flames by jumping into the ocean and swimming his way to safety. A short time later the Worleys packed up their possessions and left.

“The fire flared up again and jumped over a ridge with a momentary change in the direction of the wind, and then all of a sudden the fire was blowing toward us,” Worley said.

When the family evacuated they split up into two rental cars with four people in each, along with their luggage. At first they ended up at the Lahaina Community Center but had to evacuate from there as well. They spent the night in the parking lot of the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Both Villamar’s parents and the Worleys said Lahaina’s emergency warning siren never sounded and there was no official evacuation order.

For the time being, Villamar’s family is staying at the hotel where her father works, but that arrangement will be short lived. She is worried they will not be able to find permanent shelter or access to food and water. In addition, her father and grandmother had to leave behind essential prescription medications.

“I have been in contact with every pharmacy on the island and Red Cross as well,” Villamar said. “They all told me they would call back, but I have seen very little progress getting the supplies to [her family]. I am not sure how their bodies are responding to the lack of medication that they are used to taking every day.”

Coincidentally, Villamar’s mentor, Upland resident Susan Warren, was staying at a resort in the tourist area of Kaanapali, not far from Lahaina. Although she was not directly impacted by the fire, she experienced a lack of food and water in the days afterward.

(L-R) Scripps College student Keeana Villamar and one of her academic mentors, Upland resident Susan Warren. Villamar’s family home was destroyed by the August 8 fire in Lahaina. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

Her husband Bob waited in line for over an hour two days in a row to get food, only to be informed the meals had run out. Warren eventually found an open deli where she was able to buy enough food to get them through until their plane left.

Warren was able to connect with Villamar’s family, then staying in Kaanapali, and gave them food supplies from a local rescue effort, including protein bars and Gatorade. She also gave them the modest amount of cash she had on hand.

The crisis has made Villamar question whether she can continue her studies or if instead she should get a full-time job to help support her family.

“She has been under so much stress and has contemplated taking a gap year and go to work,” Warren said. “But I am trying to convince her, let the Claremont community and families support you so you can continue with your education and really make a difference in [her family’s] lives.”

Villamar has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise some money to stabilize the family. Checks can also be mailed to her address at Scripps, Keeana Villamar, 345 E. Ninth St. #1277, Claremont, California 91711.

The Worley clan spent two days in the rental cars and when they finally made it to the other side of the island their cell phones “exploded” with texts and voicemails from family and friends worried for their safety.

They returned to California last Thursday, August 10, but later learned the home where they vacationed was lost to the fire. On Tuesday the impact of the disaster remained profound.

“Whatever we had experienced, it’s nothing,” Worley said as he choked back a tear. “It’s still hitting me, as you can see. Whatever we had to go through, these poor people lost everything. All of these people, they lost their homes and they lost their jobs.”


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