A Honolulu Local 1260 member looks out at the devastation wrought by the wildfires in early August, leveling the historic town of Lahaina. Photo credit: Kevin Rochon
The wildfires that devastated Maui in early August were among the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history and were the deadliest fires in the U.S. in over a century. As always, IBEW members were there to help pick up the pieces, many of them on the job when they didn’t even know the fate of their own homes.
“It’s like a war zone,” said Honolulu Local 1260 Business Manager Leroy Chincio, who also represents the Seventh District on the IBEW International Executive Council. “We’ve dealt with hurricanes, lava, other natural disasters, but nothing of this magnitude, and with so many people suffering.” The fires that ravaged the historic town of Lahaina on Maui’s west coast, as well as Kula farther inland, killed more than 100 people, with roughly 400 still unaccounted for. More than 14,000 people were left without power in the days following the fires, and over 2,200 buildings were damaged just in Lahaina. It’s too soon to assess the full extent of the damage, but emergency management experts are estimating that the cost will be in the billions. The emotional toll is beyond measure. “Words can’t describe the destruction and desolation of Lahaina,” Honolulu Local 1357 Business Manager Troy Benevides said. “A popular and vibrant, historic town that welcomed everyone is now ash and rubble. A huge part of our Hawaiian history has been lost. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.” Jeff Larita, a Local 1260 member, was born and raised in Lahaina, and the only electric troubleman working in that area. “This doesn’t compare to any other storm I’ve experienced,” he said. “It was very concentrated. It was like a tornado on fire.” The historic and cultural roots of Lahaina run deep for Hawaii’s residents. The tight-knit community was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha and served as the capital from 1820 to 1845. It’s been a National Historic Landmark since 1962. Now it’s not even rubble. It’s ash. “I literally saw all my neighbors’ houses burn,” Larita said. “I can still hear the sounds, the crumbling and the violence from the explosions.” In late August, Lahaina was too toxic for him to return to work in town, so he focused instead on rebuilding his own life. Larita was one of the many who lost everything, including his home, and finding permanent housing in Hawaii is a struggle at any time. “I don’t know what the future is, or how you come back, but I’m not leaving,” he said. “As Hawaiians, we have a spiritual connection to the ocean and the earth. I really love this place.” About 500 Local 1260 members have been working to restore power as quickly and safely as possible, which will involve replacing more than 400 poles, Chincio said. Members who work in broadcasting have also been hard at work covering the catastrophe for the local news. “We got the call that Tuesday and thought it would be the usual restoration. But by the time we landed, the fire had already devastated everything,” he said. Local 1357 members worked restoring the equally devastated communications system. “Our crews are walking in as the firefighters walk out, and their dedication to their craft and communities is unmatched,” Benevides said. Local 1357 Chief Shop Steward Craig Pruse said he and many of his brothers and sisters are putting their community before their families because they know how crucial power and a dial tone are. “Our members are passionate,” Pruse said. “I’m proud of these guys and how they’ve pulled together in a time of grief.” Chincio said there were so many examples, but one that stood out to him was a member on a restoration job while his house was burning down. “There has been no shortage of heroism on the part of our members,” he said. On the mainland, IBEW support has been pouring in, including from members gathered at the annual RENEW conference in New Orleans around the same time the fires started. And in New Orleans, the impact of Hurricane Katrina can still be felt. “We were getting condolences as the news broke, and they really stepped up by donating around $4,000 for us to bring home for our members in need,” Honolulu Local 1186 Business Manager Damien Kim said. “The spirit of aloha was definitely there at the conference, and I cannot express enough my aloha and mahalo to everyone there.” For members of Santa Rosa, Calif., Local 551, the aftermath of Maui’s wildfires hit close to home. They lived through their own fire in 2017 where half the area around the local burned down. “When we saw Maui, it looked exactly like Coffee Park, which is close to the hall,” Local 551 Business Manager John McEntagart said. “I knew we had to act immediately, because that’s what helped us.” The local donated $10,000 to the GoFundMe that the three Hawaii locals set up and their Labor-Management Cooperation Committee gave $25,000. “Big checks were life-saving for our members. We were able to help for weeks after because of the money coming in. It was a huge, huge help,” McEntagart said. “Basically, if they have 55 problems to worry about, I want to make it 54.” On the other coast, East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 members are planning a luau fundraiser and working on a matching gift from Verizon, one of their employers. For them, it’s become par for the course to help out after disasters. They hosted pig roasts after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and then after an earthquake hit the island in 2020, and they collected items for Houston Local 716 after Hurricane Harvey, said Business Agent Tom Kelly. “This is what we do,” Kelly said. “We kind of pride ourselves on it.” All the support has not been lost on Hawaii’s members. “We’ve had tremendous support from the IBEW. It’s been overwhelming in a good sense,” Chincio said. “I’ve never been more proud to be an IBEW member.” The best donation right now is money, Chincio said, and those interested can go to the Hawaii locals’ GoFundMe page. For anyone interested in giving something more specific, Larita suggested swim clothing, fishing poles, bodyboards, surfboards or anything beach-related. “The ocean is therapeutic for us. It releases everything,” Larita said. “I believe it could help a lot with the trauma.” And for those who can, Local 1260 member Scott Kanemitsu said to consider visiting other parts of the island. “Come and visit Maui. We need the tourism,” he said. “Just don’t forget about us. It’s going to be a long haul, and we need people to stick with us.”
The fires that decimated Lahaina on Maui’s west coast, as well as Kula farther inland, have killed more than 100 people, with hundreds more still unaccounted for, leaving only the remains of some 2,200 buildings in Lahaina alone. The cost to recover is estimated to be in the billions.
The remains of Honolulu Local 1260 member Jeff Larita’s home. “It was like a tornado on fire,” he said. “I can still hear the sounds, the crumbling and the violence from the explosions.”