Destruction in Lāhainā caused by the Aug. 8 fire. Photo by Chelsea Paslay

On Aug. 8, 2023, I was on storm watch. Hurricane Dora was set to pass 500 miles south of Hawaiʻi and winds were expected to pick up dramatically by that afternoon. Living on a sailboat, I had already taken the day off work, knowing I needed to be on board to keep the vessel safe. 

When I woke up that morning, I had no idea that decision may have helped save my life. If I had gone to work, there was a good chance I would not have made it back.

By noon, the wind was ripping down the mountains, blowing offshore at more than 70 mph. By 3 p.m., the fire was gearing up as wind began picking up smoke and carrying it across the water. By 5 p.m., the smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun. By 9 p.m., I was wrapped in a wet towel, struggling to breathe while dousing my sails with water, praying the embers wouldn’t burn the boat down, and me with it.

By a miracle, I survived.

Like many of the survivors of the Lāhainā fire, I’m lucky to be alive. But now that the shock of the incident is slowly wearing off, a new set of feelings are flooding in.

After surviving the country’s deadliest wildfire in over 100 years, and having a front-row seat to the destruction, I’ve had to face an onslaught of heavy emotions. But one thing that’s been tugging on my heart stronger than the rest is guilt.

I know the fires were not my fault — I couldn’t have prevented or extinguished them. And yet, I can’t stop punishing myself for the events of that night.

What haunts me the most? Living. Especially after witnessing so much death and destruction.

Every breath I take feels like a slap in the face to a mother who can no longer hug her babies. To a child who had their whole future ahead of them. To the visionaries, artists and thinkers who could have contributed something big to this world.

I feel guilty for hurting when others have lost everything, including their loved ones. I’m among the lucky ones, but the logical part of my brain can’t convince the sensitive part of my heart to stop aching.

Thick clouds of black smoke covered Lāhainā during the Aug. 8 fire. Credit: Chelsea Paslay

Every night, I awaken from nightmares of fires. Nightmares of screams. Nightmares of explosions and heat engulfing me from the darkness. Nightmares of being unable to help.

But I don’t have nightmares of my home burning. I don’t have visions of my neighbors turning to ash as I escaped. I will never know the fear of running for my life. I didn’t have to leave all of my possessions behind.

Who am I to ask for help? It feels like theft from the people who lost so much more. To ask for help to ease my suffering, when it doesn’t come close to that of the people I love, feels like the looting I witnessed in Lāhainā while searching for water in the aftermath of the fire.

Though I still have my home, I’ve become displaced in a different way. With Lāhainā Harbor gone, Maui no longer has a viable place to live on a boat. My only option is to leave the island, but I feel guilty for abandoning my community in its time of need — for choosing to move forward with my life when others have no choice but to start over. 

Survivor’s guilt is real, and others are suffering from it, too. The toll this fire has taken on the mental health of Maui residents is immense. While we work on rebuilding the land, we must also work to take care of its people. 

With so many stories from survivors on the news and so much footage of the fire, it’s hard not to question our actions. But amidst this uncertainty, it’s important to remember that we all did the best we could. 

In these trying times, we’re bound by this shared journey and the collective strength of our community. As we move forward, let’s never forget that none of us walk this path alone. 

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