SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Melissa Crick was heartbroken this week after watching videos on her phone of people fleeing a fast-spreading Hawaiian wildfire.
“Sending love and support from Paradise, California,” Crick commented on a woman’s social media post.
To Crick’s surprise, the woman wrote back. She knew Paradise — the small northern California town in the Sierra Nevada foothills that was mostly destroyed by a forest fire in 2018. The woman told Crick that her support meant a lot to her.
“That was a really tough moment,” Crick told The Associated Press.
Lahaina, Hawaii is a tropical paradise on Maui’s northwest coast. But wildfires that ravaged the region forever linked it to another paradise, this one in California. The two small towns have the sad honor of having witnessed the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century – tragedies that played out in remarkably similar ways.
“It’s not what we want to be remembered for,” Crick said.
Both fires started during the night hours when it was difficult to warn people and spread quickly, leaving people very little time to flee. Both places were isolated and there were few roads leading in or out. The California fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings. The fire in Hawaii has killed more than 50 people and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
Most people would think that a place like Paradise — nestled in the woods of wildfire-prone California — doesn’t bear many resemblances to a small town in Hawaii, a state known for its lush landscapes.
But the two places have more in common than meets the eye, especially when it comes to wildfires, said Hugh Safford, a fire and vegetation ecologist at the University of California-Davis. The risk of wildfires in both locations has been known for years, particularly as climate change has resulted in hotter and drier seasons leading to intensification of wildfires, he noted.
“I’m not at all surprised that there was a fire like this in Hawaii,” Safford said. “It was only a matter of time.”
As pictures filled the news reports from Hawaii this week, Paradise was one of the few other places in the US where people really knew what it was like. Local residents say it wasn’t a good feeling.
“It immediately triggers … emotions in all of us. It’s about remembering the fear,” said Steve “Woody” Culleton, a member of the Paradise City Council who lost his home in the 2018 fire. “It’s an enormous feeling of sadness, and you’re trying to suppress it.”
At the Paradise Rotary Club meeting Wednesday, members observed the Hawaii wildfire with a minute’s silence. But they quickly thought about how they could help.
Pam Gray, a Rotary club member who lost her home in the 2018 fire, said the local club received more than $2.1 million in donations in the weeks after the fire. The association used the money to distribute gift certificates to people and pay for things like tree felling. Well, Gray said the club will seek revenge on Hawaii.
What we know about the Maui wildfires
More than 50 people have died in the Maui wildfires that broke out late Tuesday.
“We still have bodies floating on the seawall,” a Lahaina said A resident told Hawaii News Now. “They’ve been sitting there since last night.”
The wildfires, fanned by strong winds, have burned down several buildings, forced evacuations and caused power outages in several communities.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora was partly responsible for the high winds that cut power by nightfall. About 13,000 Maui residents are reportedly without power.
People rush to the sea to escape the smoke and flames fanned by Hurricane Dora.
Firefighters in Maui are battling multiple fires in the popular tourist destination of West Maui and in a mountainous inland region. Firefighters struggled to reach some areas cut off by fallen trees and power lines.
“This whole community of people witnessed what we did. If we continue to wallow in it every day, all day, we can’t get better, our community can’t get better, and we can’t help anyone else,” she said. “We had this experience for a reason. And I think it was about helping other people.”
But others, including Laura Smith, have not yet felt the urge to step in and help. Smith lost her home and almost everything she owned in the 2018 fire. She said it was so overwhelming it felt like she was “living in the jaws of a lion.”
“I get the impression that people there just need space to process what just happened to them and not be overwhelmed by platitudes about everything going to be alright, because it’s certainly not going to be alright for a long time.” said Smith. “I mean, I’m sure they’ll recover. We made. I have. my children have But it’s still a wound that we struggle with at times.”
In Paradise, hundreds of people turned out for a ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate the opening of a new, state-of-the-art building at the local high school. The school was one of the few places that didn’t burn down in the 2018 fire, becoming something of an anchor for the community’s recovery efforts.
The school library displayed various yearbooks from past classes and gave the graduates a chance to reminisce about happier times. Conversations soon turned to the Hawaii fire and then inevitably to the Paradise fire again, said Crick, who attended the event as the school board president of the Paradise Unified School District.
Crick couldn’t help but wonder: Five years from now, would the survivors of the Hawaii wildfires gather to confront their own past?
“What about your community?” she asked. “How can we support someone who is even more withdrawn than we were when our fire broke out?”
Mayor Greg Bolin said everyone he spoke to at the Paradise recovery event said their thoughts were with the victims in Hawaii.
“You know what her life is going to be like. … You know how tough and difficult times are going to be,” he said. “But if they stick with it, there is hope on the other side. it comes together And our city is coming back.”
This story has been edited to correct that the California and Hawaii fires are the deadliest in more than a century and not in US history.