Catholic family narrowly escapes Hawaii wildfires: ‘We did a lot of praying’


The Cardenas family, of Sacramento, posing outside Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina, Hawaii. / Angel Cardenas

St. Louis, Mo., Aug 16, 2023 / 15:30 pm (CNA).

A Catholic family visiting Hawaii from California barely escaped with their lives after being trapped for a time by the recent deadly wildfires on Maui in what they said was a “nightmare” experience.

As of Wednesday, more than 100 people are confirmed dead on Maui, with the toll expected to rise, after fast-moving wildfires ripped through the island beginning around Aug. 8. The damage encompasses hundreds of structures, including numerous historic buildings and churches. The latest update from Maui County says the largest of the fires is 85% contained and has burned 2,170 acres.

Angel and Ana Cardenas and their three children, of Sacramento, have been visiting Maui annually on family vacations for the past decade. Angel Cardenas, 46, who works in video production, told CNA that the family had spent eight days on the island staying just north of the historic resort town of Lahaina and were scheduled to leave for home on Aug. 9.

The Cardenas family poses on a Maui beach before the devastating fires began. Angel Cardenas
The Cardenas family poses on a Maui beach before the devastating fires began. Angel Cardenas

However, they began to hear reports on Monday, Aug. 7, that Hurricane Dora was passing through the southern part of the Hawaiian islands.

“A little bit later in the day, the winds kept picking up, getting stronger, knocking things over. They closed the pool down just because things were flying everywhere. The kids were starting to get a little worried just because they were really strong winds that were really loud,” Cardenas recalled.

By the next morning, Cardenas said, power was out in the area and the local grocery store was jammed with people frantic for supplies. To make matters worse, the Cardenases needed to get to the airport the next morning but their rental van was low on gas, and all gas pumps were nonfunctional. They packed up their van anyway in preparation for a likely evacuation. Being from northern California, the Cardenases were not unfamiliar with the dangers of wildfires.

Then they saw the smoke. The exact cause of the wildfires has not been determined, but strong winds from Dora appear to have contributed to the fires’ spread. Many residents were surprised by the fast-moving flames and had to flee on foot, while thousands of tourists evacuated.

“At that point, we didn’t know the extent of the fire, but we knew there was a fire. And so with strong winds, you put two and two together, and you start worrying a little bit,” Cardenas said.

“So Wednesday morning at 3:30, we get an alert on the speaker at the resort, and they’re telling everyone to pack their bags and that you have an option to evacuate. ‘There’s a fire in Lahaina that is moving this way.’ And we look out of our lanai, the balcony, and the sky was just orange from the glow from the fire that was just three and a half miles away, and the kids are terrified.”

The family sped away from the flames, along with many other guests at the resort. Upon reaching a village further north, Cardenas said fellow evacuees arrived covered in soot. As the sun came up, the family hunted for food with limited success — a few local cafes were passing out food in an attempt to assist the evacuees.

“And at that point, you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no power, there’s no gas, there’s no cell service. And, you know, there’s some strong winds and a fire just down the road,” Cardenas said.

“At that point, you’re freaking out. The kids are scared. We’re trying to stay composed so they don’t think it’s the end of the world.”

The family was able to seek refuge with the mother of some friends, who lived nearby and got their children some food and a shower. But by that evening, the road through Lahaina was closed, trapping them where they were. Even if the road had been open, the family’s van was so low on gas that escape seemed impossible.

One of the Cardenas children huddles with the family's luggage as the family attempts to flee Maui. Angel Cardenas/screengrab
One of the Cardenas children huddles with the family’s luggage as the family attempts to flee Maui. Angel Cardenas/screengrab

Thankfully, a school bus functioning as a makeshift shuttle arrived to ferry the trapped people to safety. The bus took the family through the now smoldering, burned-out town of Lahaina.

“The images were just surreal. When you see a town just decimated, there’s still embers, there’s still things on fire. The kids are scared, and we’re just trying to understand what just happened. We were just there in Lahaina 48 hours ago, shopping, having the time of our lives at the place we love to go every year, and then the town is just gone,” Cardenas recalled sadly.

The view of the Lahaina fire from the Cardenas family's condo. Angel Cardenas/screengrab
The view of the Lahaina fire from the Cardenas family’s condo. Angel Cardenas/screengrab

The shuttle took them to the other side of the island, to another shelter where hundreds of volunteers were checking to see if anyone needed medical care, food, blankets, and other assistance. The family ate there at the shelter before some friends who live on that side of the island came to pick them up. They stayed with the friends for two days until they could get a flight back to Sacramento, Cardenas said.

The Cardenas family had attended Mass a few days before the start of the fire in Lahaina at the historic Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, which was miraculously spared any serious damage.

The Cardenas family, of Sacramento, posing outside Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina, Hawaii. Angel Cardenas
The Cardenas family, of Sacramento, posing outside Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina, Hawaii. Angel Cardenas

“To find out that that church was untouched and still standing was pretty special,” Cardenas said.

He said he and his wife prayed a lot together during the experience, often out of the kids’ view so as not to overly frighten them. Despite having some experience with wildfires back home in California, being stuck on an island during the disaster made the family feel all the more helpless, he said.

Safe back at home but shaken, Cardenas said the family’s thoughts and prayers are with the people of the island they love so much.

“There’s a sense of guilt, because we look forward to going to that island every year, and it brings us so much joy. We love the people there. We love the culture. We love the beauty of the island, and we have created so many memories together as a family there. I just got a hibiscus tattoo on my arm last year just because that brings me joy and it reminds me of the island and the best times with my family,” Cardenas said.

“We can get on a flight and get back to Sacramento and our life is back to normal. But everyone there in Lahaina is going to be affected for years to come and have lost everything, and have lost family members. So it’s a sad takeaway, this feeling of guilt. I’m just going to try to help to get the word out for people to either donate or just continue to pray, and that’s all we can really do.”

Recovery efforts ongoing

Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii by area and the third most populous, with over 164,000 residents, according to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The western Maui town of Lahaina, with fewer than 13,000 residents, was a major victim of the fire, with entire blocks burned to the ground. The town served as the capital of the Hawaiian monarchy for 25 years in the 19th century before the capital moved to Honolulu. In addition to its importance for indigenous Hawaiians, the western town also hosted whalers and religious missionaries.

Be-Jay Kodama, vice president of philanthropy for Catholic Charities Hawai’i, told CNA via email on Tuesday that CCH is actively working with other organizations to “assess the critical needs of individuals affected by the wildfires.”

“This includes finding temporary housing, financial assistance, everyday essential needs, help in rebuilding homes and counseling,” Kodama said.

“We are also working with our diocesan partners in Hawaii and Catholic Charities USA’s national network of partners to secure funding, monetary donations, and other resources to aid those impacted.”

Speaking to CNA last week, Robert Van Tassell, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawai’i, said the effect of the disastrous fire on the Hawaiian community is “very dramatic.” Though his 300-employee agency is spread across multiple islands, not one employee is unaffected by the fires on Maui.

“All of them have family there,” he said. “Everybody in Hawaii is related. Everybody calls everyone auntie, cousin, uncle, friend, family. It’s a very connected, very family-oriented community.”

Van Tassell emphasized the need for cash donations and referred to the donation form for Maui relief at the Catholic Charities

Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva visited the town of Lahaina on Tuesday to celebrate Mass and meet survivors of the wildfires that he said “shockingly devastated” the town. Silva celebrated Mass at Kapalua, Maui, on Sunday for about 200 Catholics gathered there.

Silva said he heard numerous stories from parishioners “who lost one or more of their loved ones or neighbors, whose houses burned down, or who lost their livelihood.” He urged visitors to the diocesan website to donate to the Hawaii Catholic Community Foundation to “support the relief efforts for our fellow community members affected by the Maui wildfires.”

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  1. I heard the TLM was said at that church also. Praise God the family in this article are safe.
    Wildfires are a terrible thing. I saw an entire city’s being evacuated now in Canada.

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