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Maui fire: ‘This whole town of Paradise knows exactly what they’re feeling’

Maui fire: ‘This whole town of Paradise knows exactly what they’re feeling’

Tamra Fisher forced herself to stop watching the harrowing videos of the wildfire racing through Maui. The sense of doom was overwhelming her.

She has videos of her own terrifying escape from fire, the ones her trauma counselor has urged her to avoid. Nearly five years ago, from the driver’s seat of her bright yellow VW, stuck in paralyzed traffic, her phone camera captured the smoke turning day to night as she fled the deadliest wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire in her hometown of Paradise. It recorded her chilling screams — “Move! Move!” — that no one could hear, and the man named Larry in a big white truck who rescued her and her three elderly dogs panting in the back seat.

This week, when she watched the video of two men fleeing Lahaina in their car, the smoky skies, the sheets of glowing orange embers, the driver gasping and honking, she knew it had to be her last.

“I was panicking for him. I wanted to put my foot on the gas for him,” Fisher said in an interview Friday with the Bay Area News Group. “Your whole car is going up. You can’t touch windows. And they didn’t know what was happening. Just like I didn’t know what was happening.”

Frames from Tamra Fisher’s escape video taken as she fled Paradise and the deadly Camp Fire in her VW Beetle.

The last time Tamra Fisher saw her car it was on fire as she abandoned it escaping the Camp Fire in Paradise. Seeing it for the first time six weeks later, on Dec. 20, Fisher hoped to salvage some family heirlooms from the ashes. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

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But no one knows better what the survivors of Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster are going through — and what lies ahead — than the thousands of Californians who have endured the same.

“This whole town of Paradise knows exactly what they’re feeling,” Fisher said. “It was fast. It was brutal. They just had to go with their gut. And some didn’t make it.”

Three of California’s top five deadliest wildfires occurred since 2017. Seven of the state’s top 10 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015. None was deadlier than the Camp Fire.

In the ridge-top town of Paradise, 85 people died in 2018 when the inferno ripped through without warning on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, just as bus drivers were dropping off children at school. Of the 18,000 homes, only 2,000 survived. A town once home to 27,000 people now has no more than 9,000 — the stalwarts who returned and rebuilt, even though the commercial corridor remains nearly empty and officials from the local hospital that was destroyed announced they won’t build a new one.

A man walks through wildfire wreckage Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Summer Gerlingpicks up her piggy bank found in the rubble of her home following the wildfire Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Wildfire wreckage is shown Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits in front of an evacuation center at the War Memorial Gymnasium, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Wailuku, Hawaii. The Ah Hees were there because they were looking for her husband’s brother. Their own home in Lahaina was spared, but the homes of many of their relatives were destroyed by wildfires. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A man reacts as he sits on the Lahaina historic banyan tree damaged by a wildfire on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Burnt out cars line the sea walk after the wildfire on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that killed multiple people and wiped out a historic town. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Women hug after digging through rubble of a home destroyed by a wildfire on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A woman walks through wildfire wreckage Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that killed multiple people and wiped out a historic town. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A woman digs through rubble of a home destroyed by a wildfire on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In an aerial view, a couple walks by businesses that were destroyed by a wildfire on August 11, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Dozens of people were killed and thousands were displaced after a wind-driven wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina on Tuesday. Crews are continuing to search for missing people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In an aerial view, burned cars sit in front of homes destroyed by a wildfire on August 11, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Dozens of people were killed and thousands were displaced after a wind-driven wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina on Tuesday. Crews are continuing to search for missing people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

People walk along Main Street past wildfire damage on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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The official death toll in Maui, where winds from a distant hurricane fanned the flames, climbed to 80 late Friday night and was expected to grow. Many died fleeing in their vehicles. Dozens plunged into the ocean for safety. Nearly the entire ocean-front town of Lahaina, a historic district and tourist mecca known for its ancient banyan tree with arms spanning an entire block, has been leveled.

And the smoke still hasn’t cleared.

In the hearts and souls of many Paradise survivors, it may never. Residents often talk about sleepless nights and nightmares, intense anxiety and anger, guilt, depression and claustrophobia.

Carole Wright had to leave church early one Sunday when everyone around her rose to sing a hymn, but she felt boxed in and panicked.

“I nearly was leapfrogging over these benches,” she said. She, too, had been stuck on the main road out of Paradise, with the fire around her so hot, the heat seared her skin and deflated her tires. She considered getting out and running but decided to stay in her car. If she was going to die, she told herself, she hoped she would pass out first. She drove out five hours later on metal rims. When she saw daylight piercing through the smoke, she remembers, she started to cry.

“My fear isn’t fire,” she said. “It’s getting trapped.”

Her husband, Travis, who was at home that morning, narrowly escaped on a four-wheel ATV. But he carries guilt about the death of one of his neighbors, who rode alongside him with his wife on their own quad but was overcome by fire.

Travis Wright survived the Camp Fire by trying to outrace the firestorm on his quad, while his wife Carole was able to evacuate safely from her job a few miles away. They were able to visit their home in Paradise, Calif., Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, thanks to their neighbors, the Ranneys, who stayed and fought the fire. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

His own house, made with cement shingles and protected by other neighbors who saved it to save themselves, survived.

“I could have just told everyone to stay at our house,” he said.

It needed significant reconstruction — the shingles remained but the walls inside burned — and their once wooded property with 160 Ponderosa Pine trees is now so sunbaked they had to purchase blinds for every window.

“People try to make us feel better and say, ‘Oh well, at least you have a view now,’” Carole said. “But I liked my view before.”

In their rebuilt house across town, Richard and Zetta Gore now have a view from their front porch of Butte Canyon, where they abandoned their truck and the two Bibles inside on that apocalyptic morning and slid down the side of the bluff to escape the flames. Turkeys and deer ran alongside them as they fled. They have returned several times with family to show them the route of their 7-mile hike to safety and wonder, “Did we really do that?”

They replaced their two-story handcrafted home with a simple, one-story one on the same spot. It’s as much as their insurance claim would allow.

Still, they are grateful. “Every time we leave the house we pray, ‘Lord, take care of our house’ because we’ve learned — you leave, and you don’t know if you’ll ever see it again,” Zetta said. “It’s true. It has affected us in that way.”

Zetta and Richard Gore Of Paradise hold the bags of blankets and waterbottles they carried with them after they abandoned their cars during theCamp Fire and hiked out seven miles, including down a steep ravine.(Courtesy of Zachary Gore) 

And it makes them especially empathetic to those suffering in Maui.

“There’s so many points that were identical to what happened here in Paradise,” Richard Gore said. “But we do know that they will rise again because Paradise has. They’ll get through it.”

Civic groups from Paradise, including the Rotary Club, have already reached out to Maui with offers to help. Town Councilman Steve “Woody” Culleton wrote an email to Maui’s mayor and sent it Thursday morning.

Culleton choked up when he read it aloud.

“As a resident of Paradise CA and a survivor of the 2018 Camp Fire storm I and our community know what you folks are going through,” he wrote.

His family ran for their lives that November morning — he and his wife were stuck in separate cars miles apart — and lost everything they owned.

But there’s a reason to have hope, he wrote.

“The truth I can share is that even though it is devastating when everything you own and your home and routine and community are destroyed,” he wrote, “it is possible to come back and rebuild.”

Two weeks ago, Fisher began doing just that. She and her boyfriend moved back to Paradise. They bought a lot with a converted garage that had been spared by the 2018 fire and hope to one day build a house where the old one stood.

Maui holds a special place for her. The last time she saw her father, two years before he died, they had rented a condo in Lahaina in 2011. The day she left, father and daughter enjoyed a picnic under the sprawling banyan tree.

She is taking her therapist’s advice to avoid fire videos, but still she scrolls through Facebook, where she read a plaintive post from an old Paradise High School friend who moved to Maui years ago.

“Please pray for me,” it said.

“It’s hard not to think about other people’s pain and suffering, but I’m trying to pull myself away,” she said. “And then I will wait and I will ask my friend what can I do to help her because I do want to help a fire survivor. That’s what we do.”