East Texas native describes chaotic scene during Lahaina fire

She was able to leave her home well before it burned, but her roommates stayed, later taking video of the disaster as they tried to get out.
Published: Aug. 12, 2023 at 5:34 PM CDT
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MAUI, Hawaii (KTRE) - An East Texas native who lost her home in the wildfires after living in Hawaii for three years shared her experience.

Julia Collmorgen grew up in the piney woods of East Texas, but for the last three years, she has called Maui home. On Tuesday morning, she said she noticed strong winds from Hurricane Dora, well off the coast of Hawaii, but it was nothing that caused too much concern.

“Around noon, I decided to leave Lahaina town -- drive north about 15 miles to grill out with some friends because that’s how we were gonna eat that day. And then, day goes on, we hear that there, and of course this is all what we call ‘coconut wireless,’ like through the grapevine. We hear there is a fire -- a wildfire -- north of Lahaina in the grassy, mountainside area, which is not out of the normal for the island of Maui and the state in general,” Collmorgen said.

Having already left her home in Lahaina earlier in the day, she was safe, but her roommates had stayed behind. Around 4 p.m., with the fire sweeping the town, they decided to get out while they still could.

“I got one phone call that came through from my roommate while she was sitting in traffic in Lahaina town with our cats in the car,” Collmorgen said. “She didn’t know what to do. There was fire on the buildings on either side of her vehicle. I told her to drive through front yards, the sidewalk, anything to get out and then the call dropped. I just had to wait for her and my second roommate at our meeting spot and just wait and hope they walked through the door.”

Julia’s roommates did make it to safety. They were all able to reunite, but cell phone service was down, and they had no way to contact their families. At that time, even the full scope of the damage wasn’t known.

“The day after was when photos and helicopter footage started circulating, and I just kinda want to describe it for everyone, especially back home, real quick in a way you can understand,” Collmorgen said. “It’s not just my home. It’s as if your grandparents, your parents, your siblings, your bank, your civic center, your favorite coffee shop is just leveled.”

The place where Julia’s home once stood has been reduced to rubble. Hawaii’s governor said more than 1,000 structures were destroyed by fire. Now, a massive effort is underway to get help to the island, help that Julia said isn’t coming fast enough.

“We’re not seeing a lot of that, to be honest with you,” Collmorgen said. “No one really knows what to do. Everything on the west side that I have driven over there and seen that is being done is 100% community-based. It is aunties and uncles with their pop-up beach sheds just sorting an immense amount of supplies. People just really don’t know what’s going on, and we just need help.”

Collmorgen recommended several resources for anyone in Maui who is trying to recover, including the Maui Food Bank and Maui Humane Society. For a list of ways to help support the people in Maui affected by wildfires, click here. Or, to learn more about the Salvation Army’s “Hope for Hawaii” program, click here.

Full Interview: Julia Collmorgen grew up in Lufkin and has been living in Lahaina, Maui, for the last three years. She said it was a community she came to love.