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‘We leave now’: California man recounts harrowing escape from Maui wildfire

‘We leave now’: California man recounts harrowing escape from Maui wildfire

Adam Probolsky and his wife and kids jumped into a rental car packed with luggage cinched by bungee cords as towering flames grew closer to their picturesque Maui resort. It was Wednesday morning, Aug. 9. They had one goal —  to get off the island.

The day before, high winds knocked out power at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. Then, as night fell, the massive wildfire spread.

“We could hear explosions in the distance, and every single one was a really sad case,” said Probolsky, 49, a public policy researcher from Irvine, in a phone interview from Honolulu on Thursday. “Those are propane tanks. When you heard that, you knew somebody lost a part of their life.”

Probolsky and his wife Desiree, his mother-in-law Lupe, and daughters Isabela, 9, and Olivia, 10. had arrived at the resort just north of Lahaina on Sunday.

As the fire grew closer Tuesday, the hotel began to run out of food and basics, including toilet paper and batteries. When the resort finally lost internet service, Probolsky called his brother and best friend so they could help him chart an escape plan. He decided to stay in place until Wednesday, when there would be safer paths off the island.

In a stroke of luck, Probolsky had brought a satellite phone and backup power on the trip in case of an emergency.

“My family will never laugh at me again for carrying a satellite phone,” Probolsky wrote in a LinkedIn post. “I always do some contingency planning, but this was extraordinary.”

By Wednesday morning, the situation at the hotel had gotten dire. Visitors waited in line for food, which eventually ran out, and the hotel store was picked clean.

“People were becoming agitated,” Probolsky wrote. “It was not going to go well if we stayed.”

Probolsky knew the time had come to leave when an announcement came at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday that the only road going north was open, and the hotel was nearly out of everything. By that time, most of Lahaina had been reduced to ash.

“I talked to multiple employees who told me the saddest stories,” Probolsky said. “One man’s home of three generations had burned to the ground, and he was at the hotel doing security. I didn’t know what to say. This guy was working, and he was in a crisis.

“There was a woman whose power line fell on a car, it set on fire, and they had to run to the beach to escape. And hours later, she was working … these people did not have to be there, but they felt a sense of responsibility.”

Before the fire, Probolsky had put an ad on Craigslist for someone local to help the family with errands and advice on navigating the island. On Tuesday, Freya Kudzmas, a resident of the town Haiku, on the other side, was helping him gather the food, flashlights and other things they needed for their escape. They stuffed a car so full of supplies and luggage that it all had to be held together by bungee cords.

By late Wednesday morning, power at the hotel was running out, and the fire glowed eerily outside the hotel windows. Probolsky’s brother had booked the family a flight to Oahu and a hotel room.

It was time to go.

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“I charged down the stairs, and I know it sounds dramatic, but I grabbed Lupe’s arm and said, ‘We leave now,’” Probolsky said. “We booked it back to the room … I said that we had 20 minutes.”

“It was the thing a Liam Neeson movie is made of,” Probolsky wrote on LinkedIn. “I know we had a short exit window before chaos ensued.”

Finally, Probolsky and his family began a journey northbound on the Honoapiilani Highway, which winds up the west coast of Maui past dramatic cliffs and lush vistas.

“Leaving was [only possible] through the scary (on a calm day) north road to the airport,” Probolsky wrote in his post. “It is a one-lane road in many places that is masquerading as a two-lane highway with sheer drops on one side and falling rock walls on the other.”

Later that evening, the family caught their flight off the island.

“Life is normal here,” Probolsky said from a mall in Honolulu on Friday. “I might as well be at The Grove. Going from huffing it up eight flights of stairs to being in a luxury mall with a Giorgio Armani is pretty amazing.”

Probolsky was quick to credit Kudzmas and other local residents who helped make his family’s escape possible. Kudzmas, a Philadelphia native who moved to Maui nine years ago, is also safe.

“Hawaiians are some of the nicest people you will ever meet,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that the people at the hotel were being so selfless. The more that we’re hearing on the ground, it seems way worse than they’re saying on the news. A lot of people did not have time to get out.”