Maui fire | Fiji man hailed a hero in Lahaina

Steven and the couple’s dogs play in the forest at Poli Poli, Hawaii. Picture: SUPPLIED

Part 1

Man from Savusavu, Cakaudrove has been hailed a hero in the United States for the part he played in providing assistance during the recent Lahaina wildfire on Maui, Hawaii.

On August 8, wildfires swept across Maui and killed at least 97 people,  making it one of the America’s deadliest disasters.

For weeks, the authorities had said that 115 people died in the fire but this week the figue was revised.

But what people didn’t know is that the fire could have wrought even more destruction, were it not for the brave actions of a husband and wife who were fleeing the fire.

Would you also have guessed that the guy who has been hailed as a hero by the media was from Vanua Levu?

Yes, as in Fiji! On August 8 Steven Pickering and his wife Jessica were driving to another town on Maui to take their vehicle in for servicing. Steven is from Naqalaka, near Bagasau, a village on the Hibiscus Highway in Cakaudrove, Vanua Levu.

Steven and Jessica run a dive shop in Lahaina which was lost in the fires.

“The wind was really strong that day,” Steven told the American media..

“On our way back we grabbed some food and then when we got home the wind really picked up so we decided to close everything up in case things started to go flying in the wind.

“We were just going to stay home and watch movies.”

At around midday they noticed their neighbours had started cutting away trees that had fallen on the road and on some houses. “At around the same time we started to smell smoke.”

They packed up their dogs and jumped into the car to get out of the area.

When they went outside the house smoke was starting to fill the air. Jessica started grabbing food and packing things to take with them as Steven climbed on the roof to hose their house down.

The winds were pushing 110 kilometres per hour and Jessica was shouting for Steven to come down.

As Jessica was packing up the car, Steven – still on the roof – began shouting to her that they needed to leave immediately because the fire was visible. They got into their car and sped off, or at least they tried.

As people were leaving traffic began to build at the two exits leading out of their neighbourhood. They went from one to the other but they both jammed up.

As they turned around from the second exit Jessica noticed the fire in the bushes of a house seven or so doors down from theirs.

Steven jumped out, turned on the garden hose and put the fire out. “It was scary, car horns were honking, ambers were flying all over the place.

“It was just one of those things that I just did without thinking about it too much and it ended up saving the neighbourhood.”

Steven also started spraying down the lawn but Jessica called him back into the car because they needed to go.

They spent almost an hour in traffic trying to get to safety. When the fires stopped and the damage was surveyed, the houses on their block were saved from the fires.

The Smith family. Picture: SUPPLIED

On Thursday, this newspaper spoke to the couple, Steve and Jess Pickering, via Messenger, to get a fair idea of what happened on that tragic day.

This week we publish Part 1 of our Q&A with the Pickerings, outlining in details what happened in Lahaina on the day of the fire and how the couple fled to safety.

Q: Can you share a little bit about yourselves, and then about your experience during the Lahaina fires.

Jess: We met diving in Savusavu in 2015 and were married 10 months later in 2016. We moved to Maui together and bought a dive shop in 2017, we have run Maui Diving – Scuba & Snorkel Center in Lahaina since 2017. On the day of the fire, we closed the shop because the winds were so bad. The power was out at the shop earlier in the day, so we closed everything, sent everybody home and cancelled all the dives. We were home that day and we noticed a lot of wind throughout the day. I took various Facebook videos of things like the trees falling down around the neighbourhood. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon when I started to notice smoke and the fire. I went out the front door and noticed huge black smoke. I said to Steven, this looks pretty close, we should probably consider evacuation. I started to hear pop pop pop sounds, like fireworks. I said to Steven, I think that’s our dive shop, because when scuba tanks overheat they explode. The two things that explode are propane tanks and scuba tanks. There were way too many explosions in succession to be propane tanks. But these were like pop, pop, pop.. , just like fireworks so I said gosh I’m pretty sure that’s our shop burning right now, which is only less than a mile away from our house. I casually started grabbing stuff from the house. Stephen got the hose out and jumped up on our roof, he started watering the roof down

Steven: “I also told her to turn the sprinklers on.”

Jess: So we ran the sprinklers. We set it for about an hour in each zone so that the yard got enough water then I looked for Steven. I go outside to yell for him and he was up on the roof and the wind was now like 70 miles an hour. I don’t know what that is in kilometers but it’s fast wind and he was up there with the hose, I said Steven get down, the last thing I need for you is to get blown over in the storm. So he gets off the roof and I’m in the kitchen, I’m grabbing food for everybody so that when we evacuate we have dinner, you know, I’m trying to think ahead. I’m not moving with quickness, I’m just kind of like getting our stuff together casually. We also have a room-mate who I also told “Hey, you might want to consider gathering your things. Don’t forget your papers, your passport all the important stuff. So our room-mate goes outside with his stuff to put in his car which is parked outside our garage. At the time I was inside our garage loading our car. Stephen was continuing to water all of the plants and things to help keep it moist. Our garage door was close but it had little windows on the top and our roommate started banging on the garage door. He’s tall so I can see his face looking in and he’s yells, “we have to go now Jess, get in your car, you have to go now! He could see the fire rain, the embers raining down. I screamed for Steven, I said I’m not joking, run we have to get in the car. But before leaving the house I remember to take video of the house, because I’ve always been told if something is going to burn, run through and take a quick video for proof of everything you own. So I take video of the house really fast, and then when we got out to the car. I gave the phone to Steven so we could continue recording in case we passed people we could get on video to help confirm who we saw in case family members are looking for them, I thought at least we could help that way by saying look we saw them leaving or use the video to spot someone in their car who we saw. So he kept recording as we tried to exit. There are two exits in our neighborhood, a back way and a front way, we tried the back way but got stuck at a long line of traffic. We backed up, turned around and drove to the front exit, but we also got stopped by traffic, but that is where we saw the fire! There are cars that are turning in front of us coming toward us trying to go back toward the back way we just came from, because the fire was actually blocking the front way. So the back exit was blocked by traffic but the front was actually blocked by the fire. I did a three point turn near the front exit in the middle of the road, of course, we left the house with no shoes on because we didn’t have time to put them on and just ran. We saw a fire start in the bush as seen on the video. I see Steven go for the door handle and I knew what was in his head, but we had no shoes on, I just said okay go without shoes, it doesn’t matter. So he runs, he grabs the hose outside that house but then had a problem getting the water to come out because of a kink in the hose. For five long seconds he’s just fiddling with a hose with no water, and I’m like ahhhh okay come on. Steven puts the fire out in the bushes and then decides to also water the lawn so that it doesn’t catch fire. At that point I looked down and I saw the fire ash embers coming underneath my car. I yelled, just to leave the hose on in the bushes on fire. Steven wrapped the hose using a neaby chair placing it in the bushes so the water kept running in the ground where the bush had been burning.

Steven: First I threw the hose down and it was just swinging all over the place so I wrapped it around (the chair) to keep it in that area..

Jess: He jumped in the car and we went back to the back exit where we had gotten stuck the first time. We were just sitting there…it felt like a long time…it was probably no more than 10 minutes but really felt like a long time because as we sat there the black smoke got thicker and thicker and thicker to the point where you couldn’t see maybe two cars in front of you. We were still recording all of this as we sat there. Suddenly a man just walked past our car. He was holding some clothes and pulling like a carry-on suitcase behind him. I looked at Steven and said, he’s going to die out here. He’s gonna breathe in all of this smoke and he’s gonna die, there’s nowhere…you can’t walk somewhere safe that’s not on fire right now. So we squished all of our things in the back and opened the door, we told the guy, “We don’t know who you are but do you want to come in our car to get somewhere safe? We’re planning on going to the hotels up North away from the fire, you can come in our car. I know you don’t know us. He said, ‘if it get’s me to safety, I will’. It turns out that this man’s elderly mum would not evacuate. So he decided that to save his life he had to evacuate. He gave his mum the car keys and he walked out of the house. That guy we picked up also lived in a house near the fire we had put out. We’d never met him before as he was staying for the summer with his elderly mum. The bushes were next door to his house. We found all this out later when we were actually comparing notes. So we got him in the car and it took us about an hour to drive to safety as the roads were all congested. There were people riding bikes out of it (the fire), there were people who are walking out of it. There were cars…the cars just kind of stopped on the road with nowhere to go. There were power lines on the road, they were down everywhere…down.


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