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  • Writer's pictureTamara Conniff

Former Billboard Editor-In-Chief On Her Harrowing Escape From the Lahaina Fire: ‘It Was Total Chaos’

Tamara Conniff and her children barely escaped the inferno. Now she's working to ensure that, as it rebuilds, her beloved community doesn't lose even more.

We first came to Lahaina during COVID because my son, Greyson, who was 5 at the time, was losing his mind. He’s a very active boy, and we needed to get him out of the house. My dad, musician Ray Conniff, had a lot of close ties to Hawaii and the community here. He’d spent a lot of time in Lahaina and even recorded a Hawaii LP [1967’s Ray Conniff’s Hawaiian Album]. So we moved here for a couple of months during quarantine, spending time with our friends, Stephen Stills’ son Chris and his wife, Stacy, and their family. My son met a local surf instructor, Uncle Bully, who is an amazing human. He teaches kids, especially locals, to surf and respect the ocean. He became a family friend and taught Greyson how to surf. He’s now 8 and a competitive surfer. The water is his happy place.

There’s something deeply spiritual about Maui, especially Lahaina. It’s a super tightknit surf and skateboarding community. All of the families, aunties, uncles and neighbors look out for one another. If you ever need anything, people drop what they’re doing and help. We have one another’s backs. The community is focused on family; the kids are outside without tablets, and they’re learning about the water, the ocean and how to be one with nature. That’s what Lahaina is all about. We bought a house here, and while I wasn’t born here, my family and I are very respectful of Hawaiian culture and our native community, and the town and island has become our home. Maui grabs your soul, and it will keep you.

We live on Wainee Street, one block from Front Street across from the historic prison. On Tuesday, Aug. 8 at 4 a.m. our power went out due to hurricane winds. Power goes out a lot in Lahaina, so this is not unusual. We gathered our friends to come have lunch because we have a barbeque, and no one had power. Per usual, we had 15 people at our house hanging out. Earlier in the day, some received an alert that there was a fire, but it was 100 percent contained. I never got that alert, but some of my friends did. The winds got so bad that our fence flew off, pieces of our roof. Still no alerts or fire warnings, even though in that same place, that we were told was contained, the fire was already coming. We had some other friends staying in our ohana [guest house] and they came over to say, “We see smoke.” We walked into the back of the house and within seconds, the fire was in our backyard. We grabbed the kids and ran with nothing more than the shirts on our backs. I was driving the car with my son and two boys we watch out for who live at a homeless shelter.

As we were driving away, the fire was barreling toward us. We reached the main road, and it was gridlock in one direction. The other side was completely open. And there was no one directing traffic. No sirens, no warnings, no text messages, no officials there to help. People were running down streets and trying any way they could to beat traffic. A power pole was down blocking the way out. When we finally got through we saw three workers with chainsaws cutting the pole to pieces to unblock the road. Only three workers!

People who left after we did — maybe two, three, four and even five minutes later— couldn’t get out. The fire swept through in an instant, and those photos that have emerged showing cars burned on Front Street, they burned because they couldn’t move. Other people jumped in the water. We have friends who live 40 feet from Front Street, they couldn’t get out by car, so they jumped in a golf cart to escape on the sidewalk. It was total chaos.

As a mom, I tried to stay super calm. I had my son with me and the two other boys, and we didn’t know if their parents were OK because they were at the shelter, which was also on fire. My husband and my daughter were in another car, and I tried to reassure the boys that everyone was going to be OK even though we could see the fire coming down the highway in our direction. I just kept saying, “We’re safe. We’re safe. We’re going to make it out.” And we did.

Everyone from Lahaina who got out ended up in a Safeway parking lot in Kahului at 3 a.m., walking around aimlessly or sleeping in cars. Nobody knew what to do because we still had no official direction or communication. It was a complete deadly failure on the part of the local authorities. There’s literally no infrastructure in Lahaina. Everyone knows Front Street as a tourist destination. What you don’t know is that a few blocks up is lower income housing, a homeless shelter, generational Hawaiian homes, not the $5 million vacation homes. Locals live here.

The next day, we went straight into survival mode. We just started thinking about what people need, especially those who have less than we do. It was a lot of coordinating by securing small planes, boats, generators, gas, water, food and figuring how to get it back to Lahaina and those who needed it immediately. We ended up making it back in our truck to deliver supplies. It’s like a bomb went off. It’s totally disorienting because there are no buildings to recognize. Everything is gone. It’s all ash and burned to the ground. From what I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had with police and firemen in our direct circle, the devastation is being underreported. So many bodies have not yet been identified, and the death toll is expected to grow to hundreds. Cadaver dogs are still searching for bodies.

Our homes and the homes of our community are gone. When I walked the ashes, what devasted me was seeing my children’s bedrooms burned to the ground because that’s where they slept. I imagined what would’ve happened if we didn’t make it out. What if this happened at night? Stuff is just stuff. None of that matters. What does matter is life, people, community, rebuilding, supporting each other. This is an entire community that has been wiped out. Our realtor friends are getting hundreds of emails from big developers asking to buy “devastated properties.” These are mostly the homes of indigenous families, and we need to make sure they don’t get forced out. Lahaina must stay in Lahaina hands.

We’ve been buying supplies and giving money to families who need it immediately. I co-founded a nonprofit, Mana Mentors — an organization that helps teach at-risk youth how to surf and skate — and we’ve pivoted to raising money so that in two, three or four months, when no one is paying attention anymore, we can still help and rebuild. We’re also accepting donations of surfboards, skateboards and gear for the kids who lost everything. We’ve been working with Kevin Lyman [founder of the Vans Warped Tour music festival]; Smith Mandel & Associates, who have reached out to all the brands they represent to help; surfers Jud Lau and Tyler Larronde; musician and Maui local Lily Meola; and countless others who have been incredible with their generosity.

The kids are having a really hard time because they don’t know how to process such a tragedy. These are the things that bring them joy, and we want to help them get back in the water, back on their boards, so they can have something that makes them happy. We lost our town. My daughter, who is 3, can’t really process this, but she loves the banyan tree. She said to me, “Mommy, I just wanna go hug the banyan tree to make it better. When can I go hug the tree?”

We are 100 percent going to give our all to rebuild this community. We want to protect Lahaina, and we want to preserve its history. This place has such a rich Hawaiian history, and so many Hawaiians have already been forced to move because they were priced out. We don’t want that. Lahaina needs to be rebuilt in a way that can protect the beauty of this special place.

Inflatable Film was about to release a documentary on Uncle Bully and his mission to teach the local homeless kids how to surf and a take deep look at what the real Lahaina is like. This story will still be told, but the backdrop is no longer the devastation that COVID had on Lahaina, but this — this deadly disaster and how the kids are going to heal from it. Lahaina is Lahaina strong.

Tamara Conniff is the CEO of AMR Songs, a rights acquisition fund. She served as the editor-in-chief at Billboardand music editor at The Hollywood Reporter and held a top post at Roc Nation. She is the one of the founders of Mana Mentors.

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