Maui Wildfires Hit Close to Home for Pacific Students

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On August 8th, a historic wildfire struck the island of Maui. With Pacific
University having a strong connection to the islands of Hawai’i, the aftermath could be felt
hundreds of miles away.

Wildfires flared on Maui, Hawaii, more than three weeks ago, and the heavy winds from the
hurricane made them challenging to control. Pacific University has approximately 60
undergraduate and graduate students from Maui. Between 2018 and 2021, 17-20% of first-year
students from the state of Hawaii enrolled. Pacific has deep connections to Hawaii, and the
wildfires have affected many of its students.

Sami Villon is a first-year optometry graduate student from Kahului, Maui, in the island’s central
region. Villon was home for the summer before returning to school in the fall, and she recalls
hearing about the Lahaina fires while at work on August 8th.

It was widely assumed at Villon’s workplace that the wildfires would not spread because the
firefighters believed the Lahaina fire was entirely contained and was moving up the mountain to
deal with the Kula fires next.

That same day, Villon recalls closing at work around 4 p.m. and hearing fire truck sirens whizz
past her and her coworkers toward the direction of Lahaina.

“All of us looked at each other with concern but were trying to be optimistic, but then, by dinner
time, it was all over the news how serious it was,” explained Sammy.

Villon has family in Lahaina, and while they could all evacuate safely, the fire destroyed some of
their property. With cell phone service down, it was unclear how quickly they would be able to
contact their family members, but by the next day, her family heard from their relatives and
confirmed their safety.

“It is a strange kind of lucky,” explained Villon. “My auntie’s house got burned down, and then
literally right around the block by uncle’s house was fine.”

Villon explained that everyone in the town ended up helping out in some capacity, and the
community’s strength shone through. Villon volunteered in a shelter for residents who had been
evacuated from their houses, where she assisted with laundry and bed linen changes.

“At one point, they were actually turning away volunteers, and I feel like that represents Maui
accurately,” said Villon.

Ikaika Viela, a fifth-year student at Pacific, had flown back to school for preseason football camp
a day before the fires had started. Viela received updates from his family members back home
but felt helpless being so far away. His football coaches gave him the option to return home, but
he thought it was best to stay put because he knew there were limited resources already.

Viela’s home survived, but three of his other relative’s houses on the same street did not. Viela
said he found comfort in knowing all his family had places to stay, but the notifications kept

“Luckily, we have good family friends, and my family is staying at their five-bedroom house, so
I took comfort in knowing my family had a place to go and were safe, but it’s hard not being able
to go home and help my family,” explained Viela.

During fall camp, Viela explained how difficult it was to focus but how much he appreciated the
distraction from his phone and the news. Viela had seen many photographs on social media in
recent weeks and remains shocked that his hometown will not be the same when he returns.
This tragedy will affect Hawaii for a long time, not only because so many people lost their
homes but because Hawaii’s economy is so high in Lahaina. Pacific has opened the Student
Emergency Fund and asked for donations to support the students needing assistance from the

The death toll in Lahaina remains at 115, but hundreds remain missing and unaccounted for. The
recovery efforts are estimated to cost billions of dollars and take years to complete.
Pacific has assisted Maui residents, including the ability to request a leave of absence from
school and tuition due date extensions. The donations towards the student emergency fund will
continue to help students from Maui for years and should not be forgotten. — Emily Rutkowski


Major: Journalism

Hometown: Mesa, Arizona

Hobbies: soccer, track, being outside, hiking, writing

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