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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Press Pass: Seeing the Rogue Valley in Lahaina

In his Facebook videos from the first days after the fire in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the look on Nicholas Winfrey’s face was painfully relatable.

It was in the distant stare as he described the situation and in the sheer disbelief in his voice about the things he was saying. “Currently communication lines are still down in Lahaina – for what’s left of Lahaina. And really, we just don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. Winfrey is the president of Maui United Way, the local branch of the social services provider that steps into to help communities with any number of needs, be it education, economic mobility or nutrition. I saw the videos after they were shared on the Facebook page of our local Jackson County United Way. Winfrey described a community coming together to provide food and shelter, and grappling with the long term help they’d be needing. “We do know that Lahaina is not what Lahaina was,” he said.

The wildfire that started on Aug. 8 in Maui resulted in 115 deaths (as of this writing) making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire event in the past century. Before that, the deadliest wildfire was the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in 2018, which took 85 lives. The Maui fire destroyed or damaged more than 2,200 structures including most of Lahaina. FEMA estimates it will cost $5.5 billion to rebuild.

Seeing the images of charred cars, blackened sticks that had been trees, and homes reduced to monochrome piles of ash, it was impossible for me not to remember the same destruction that happened in the Rogue Valley in 2020. Three years ago this September, the Almeda Fire tore through the communities of Phoenix and Talent, as wildfires simultaneously torched other parts of Oregon and California. The similarities don’t end there. Both the Almeda and Lahaina fires were driven by high winds, making them impossible to control. In both places, the frailty of our emergency alert systems became apparent as cell phone towers burned and power was cut, leaving residents with little warning about what was happening until they saw the oncoming smoke. In Lahaina, none of the community’s 80 warning sirens went off during the fire, according to reports. These two disasters differ in the incredible loss of life Hawaii endured. Three people died as a result of the Almeda Fire. This magazine column will likely be out of date by the time you read it because the death toll in Lahaina is expected to grow beyond the current 96 fatalities.

Like in the Rogue Valley, rebuilding on Maui will be slow. According to Nicholas Winfrey’s initial Facebook videos, all of the affordable housing in their community was destroyed. I’m not sure anyone understands the glacial speed of cleanup and rebuilding after a wildfire without having experienced it. At JPR, our reporters are still covering the slow redevelopment of housing in the Rogue Valley after the Almeda Fire, now three years later. In one example, JPR reporter Jane Vaughan recently broke a story about modular homes that arrived in Phoenix intended for wildfire survivors, some of whom are STILL living in hotels. But as the homes were being installed, they were found to be uninhabitable because of leaking water, mold and not being built to code. The speed it takes to rebuild can feel maddening.

Most people around the country won’t understand what residents of Lahaina are now facing. But some residents of Southern Oregon and Northern California will, be it because of the Almeda Fire, Slater Fire, Mill Fire, or any number of others.

The wildfires in Lahaina happened in early August. This issue of the Jefferson Journal comes out in September. There’s a good chance, that as you read this, some other story will have swept across the headlines, pushing out the news of Lahaina in the same way the news cycle churned past the Almeda Fire. But the struggle that the Hawaiian town of 12,000 now faces is nowhere near over. This is more likely the time when the initial surge of outside support is slowing. If you, like me, are thinking about how to remember the devastating fires here in Oregon in 2020, consider offering support to the residents of Lahaina who are just starting to pick up the pieces.

Organizations providing support in Maui:

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.