After harrowing trip to Maui, Carmel students urge local support for Hawaii fire victims


It was supposed to be a week of rest; a rare break from hectic schedules and responsibilities before heading back to the daily grind of college life.

Instead, three students from Carmel found themselves desperate for information and basic supplies as black smoke rolled across the sky earlier this month in Lahaina, a village on the Hawaiian island of Maui. With electricity and cell service down, they learned about the wildfire raging nearby by word of mouth from local residents.

They were still in their bathing suits when they decided to flee to the airport, hoping the roads would be clear enough of traffic that a quarter tank of gas would get them there. As they traveled through the historic island town, they witnessed a sight they’ll never forget.

“We were all bawling our eyes out,” said Jillian Sager, a 2022 University High School graduate. “On the one side, there was the mountain with the ‘L’ for Lahaina and there’s a rainbow over it, and on the other side buildings were burning. It was just surreal.”

Since returning home, the women have been on a mission to raise awareness about the wildfires and funds for the people affected. The fire has burned 2,170 acres and killed at least 115 people, with approximately 850 still missing as of Aug. 22, making it one of the deadliest conflagrations in U.S. history.

Sager and her longtime friend, Madelyn Wood, traveled to Maui Aug. 5 to stay in a timeshare owned by the family of another Carmel friend, who also joined them on the trip. They spent their first day on the island picking up a rental car from a local resident and going on a sunset sailboat cruise.

“It was a very good welcome to the trip,” said Wood, a 2022 Carmel High School graduate. “We were like, ‘How can it get (any) better?’”

The next day, they went swimming at the bottom of a mountain waterfall, amazed by the island’s beauty. That evening, they visited Front Street, a tourist destination also rich in history and culture.

“That’s where we met a lot of the locals that we’re still connected with now and made some really good friends. We had good conversations with a lot of great people,” Sager said. “Then when we went to bed, we woke up the next morning without power. We were really confused with what was going on.”

Later that day, the students attempted to drive into town, in part because they still hadn’t purchased groceries for the week.

“When we drove out five minutes down the road, we saw a big cloud of black smoke. We didn’t know what was going on,” Sager said, adding that they were directed by police to turn around. “Later that night we walked outside of our condo and the whole sky was orange. That’s when we started to know something was really wrong.”

Unbeknownst to many on the island, Front Street and other nearby areas were engulfed in flames. Sager and Wood said just days later they barely recognized the buildings where they had previously hung out and met local residents. But even worse: they had no idea if their new friends were safe. They ended up eventually connecting with some of them, learning that at least one had lost everything, including his dog.

Another local resident – the one who rented the students the car – also suffered great loss.

“He lives near Front Street in Lahaina, so everything he owns is now gone,” Sager said. “We didn’t know if he was OK for three days. We ended up having to sleep in his car at the airport. We had to leave his car. Just a couple days ago, I mailed his key back to him.”

The students later learned that the condo where they had stayed did not burn down, although many nearby structures did not survive the blaze.

Sager and Wood presented a brief update about their trip and continuing efforts to help Lahaina residents during the service Aug. 20 at Orchard Park Presbyterian Church in Carmel, where Wood’s mother is the senior pastor. They shared QR codes linked to fundraising efforts involving many of the people they met in Hawaii and urged Carmel residents to research the matter and give, if they feel led.

As Wood and Sager prepare to begin their sophomore year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, they aren’t feeling as refreshed as they expected. But they are entering the school year with a new perspective on life.

“Once you see something that catastrophic and that fast, and how quickly something can be taken away from you, it gave me new insight,” Wood said.

How to help

Madelyn Wood and Jillian Sager have been collecting information about how to help Lahaina residents in the area where they visited. To learn more and support Lahaina residents they recommend: