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6 months after the Maui fires, survivors share how they have seen God’s hand, felt His love

Six months after deadly fires in Hawaii destroyed Lahaina on Aug. 8, survivors talk about the miracles they have seen since the tragedy and how they have changed

LAHAINA, Hawaii — How can Nathalie Smith stay so positive after her home burned down? While she and her family are living in one hotel room? When she doesn’t know when they will have their own place again?

“Being surrounded by faith-filled friends and having faith ourselves has helped us be mindful and look for where we can see Heavenly Father in the things that are happening,” she said.

Six months have passed since deadly and devastating fires hit the Hawaiian island of Maui on Aug. 8, 2023, destroying almost the entire town of Lahaina. 

Only recently came official identification of all 100 people who were confirmed dead, including five members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tall, boarded fences were built to block views of the neighborhoods, while barricades keep people from driving down the streets. Residents have to get a permit to go see where they once lived. Nonresidents need not apply.

Almost 80 members of the Lahaina 1st Ward and Lahaina 2nd Ward lost their homes. Though the Smiths’ home and most of their possessions were burned, they have felt God’s love for them as they have looked for it. 

“We are overwhelmed with gratitude for other people being willing to be God’s hands,” Nathalie Smith said.

Her mother taught her as a child to always look for the good, starting with the very air she breathes. She actively chooses gratitude and practices it with her husband, Matt Smith; and their children Jacksen, 12, and Kai, 7.

Small pictures drawn by school children line the street near burned out homes and businesses in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Pictures that were drawn by school children line the barricades put up around burned homes and businesses in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, six months after the fires on the island of Maui. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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Each night before family prayer, the Smiths speak of what they can think of to be grateful for because of the fire.

Matt Smith said that their gratitude has come in layers. “At first we were grateful that we were alive. Then we were grateful for the kindness of strangers. And then we would go deeper. And we would find things along the way we were grateful for.”

Sitting outside on the hotel grounds, they listed some of those blessings: Kind words and prayers on their behalf. A listening ear. Donations from friends and strangers near and far with basic necessities, clothing and toys. Kai lost his Lego sets in the fire. “But now we have way more,” he said, spreading his arms. 

Jacksen thought his memory box burned in the fire, but his dad happened to have it with him that day in his car on the other side of the island. Because of the fire, Jacksen and Kai are both able to go to the same school together with a fee waiver.

The Smith family sits in a gazebo on hotel grounds to talk about gratitude after the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The Smith family — Matt Smith, Nathalie Smith, Jacksen Smith, age 12, and Kai Smith, age 7 — talk about gratitude after the Maui wildfires burned their home six months before and what might be next for them while on their hotel grounds in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tourists have started coming back to the island, and now a ward just for visitors meets on Sundays at a different time than the Lahaina 1st Ward. Jacksen is grateful for the opportunity to be able to pass the sacrament during both meeting times.

“Most of the time we are really grateful,” Nathalie Smith said, “though today was hard.” She had just come from a meeting on Friday, Feb. 9, with government officials where answers and timelines were hard to get. Some estimate it could be years before anything can happen with the properties. 

She said she has learned to hold space for both pain and gratitude at the same time.

Matt Smith said staying busy observing needs and looking to help has blessed him, whether it is listening to others or serving in some way. “What can I do?” he has asked.

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‘The fire was meant to change people’

While some residents have said reliving the day of the fires is too painful, others find healing in sharing their stories and hearing others’ stories. They want to more fully understand what happened and make sense of it.

Etina Hingano has tears in her eyes as she talks about the August 2023 fires on Maui six months later.
Etina Hingano becomes emotional while sitting at her family’s temporary housing in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, as she reflects on August 2023 fire and what the future holds. She and other Maui residents are making the best of their situations as they try to move on from the fires six months ago. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Etina Hingano — a member of the Lahaina 2nd (Tongan) Ward — has a large and caring extended family, ward and community. When people could not find her after the fires, they thought she was dead.

She believes she could have died. To escape the fireball, she went over the seawall. When a car exploded with the heat, she fell backward into the water.

“I felt this sensation of such perfect, pure love,” she said, accompanied by a pull that she wanted to go toward. But she thought of her children and prayed out loud. Then a rope appeared, and she reached out and caught hold.

Every moment she prayed, telling God, “If you let me live, I promise I will change my life.”

From her spot in the water, fighting the strong tide, Hingano saw the winds change and seemingly pick up the fire and turn it onto the historic town, burning her home as well.

As a historian with the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, she knows what Lahaina has been in the past and has many hopes for what the town and its residents can become.

“The fire was meant to change people,” she said. 

Etina Hingano holds her baby grandson as another grandson plays with their dog in a beach bungalow in Lahaina, on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
Etina Hingano holds her grandson Vili Leon as her other grandson Isao Leon pulls on Luna their dog at the Royal Hawaiian Resort and Bungalows in Lahaina, Hawaii, Feb. 9, 2024. Hingano and her family have been living in a bungalow since fires burned their home and town on Aug. 8, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While Hingano has scars on her body from the embers, ashes and rocks, she recounts all the miracles that day — and the miracles since.

She is still the same, but she also feels different now. She is more patient, more focused on family and more prone to look for what others need in terms of ministering. And she is more sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. 

“I see death in a whole different sense. I see family in a different sense. I am not afraid of death; I am afraid of not being ready for it.”

As she watched her family members play together on the beach near the bungalow where they have been staying, she spoke about their efforts to find more permanent housing and jobs and how they help and support each other. Her brother stopped by, as did a niece and nephew. Her two young grandchildren ran to be picked up and then ran back to play with their dog.

“I’m thankful to be alive, but I’m also thankful that God showed me that I am loved,” Hingano said.

Etina Hingano stands on the beach by the water and looks out near Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui.
Etina Hingano poses for a photo on the beach near Lahaina, Hawaii, as she reflects on the August 2023 Maui fires and what the future holds for her family on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘You matter’

When Nathalie and Matt Smith were finally allowed to go back to the remains of their burned home, volunteers from the religious organization Samaritan’s Purse were there to help them sift through the ashes to see if anything could be found.

“We were looking through the stuff, it was a hot day, and they were there just working, working, working,” Matt Smith remembered. “We were talking about the Savior and how He went through everything so He could completely understand us.”

As they talked, he realized that the Savior never compared hardships or downplayed someone’s suffering.

Nathalie Smith wanted to tell the volunteers to stop looking. It felt fruitless to her. But she heard a prompting: “You are worth it, let them help.” Nevertheless, she went to the volunteers and told them it was OK to stop because nothing could be found or saved.

A volunteer turned to her and said, “We are here because you matter. We are not here to find your stuff, we are to show you that you matter.”

That became a pivotal transformation for her.

Tears filled her eyes as she realized, “If you look for it, you can see God’s hands everywhere. That’s how He is here, is through other people.”

Matt Smith and Nathalie Smith talk on the grounds of a hotel in Lahaina, Hawaii, about the fire that burned their home.
Matt Smith and his wife, Nathalie Smith, talk about cultivating gratitude and looking for God’s hand in their lives after the August 2023 fires burned their home in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. Maui residents are making the best of their situations as they try to move on from the fires six months ago. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Nathalie Smith acknowledged that many people go through trials every day, but they do not have the exposure or attention that this fire received — nor the outpouring of support.

“God is so good. We are so blessed, we are so cared for,” she said.

Looking at his wife, Matt Smith added, “We are not alone.”

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