The beaches near the Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui remain idyllic; their golden sandy shorelines slip beneath the turquoise surf as it rolls in, and palm trees still sway in the breeze.
But drive a half-hour west and the landscape looks much different. The historic seaside town of Lahaina, once home to 13,000 people, was mostly reduced to smoke and ash when the country’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century tore through the area last week. Now, residents must dig through piles of debris and bird carcasses to try to recover the belongings they left behind when they fled.
So far, at least 99 people are confirmed dead. The death toll is expected to rise this week as rescuers reach more remote corners of the island.
“Coming into awful situations, you have to turn off your emotions,” said Jill Cowan, a Los Angeles-based reporter for The New York Times’s National desk who flew to Hawaii last week to cover the fires. “Otherwise, you can’t function or do your job.”
In a phone conversation from her motel on Friday, she shared how her experience covering wildfires in California helped her tackle the Hawaii blazes, which image from the devastation will stick with her and why it’s so important to have reporters on the ground at a disaster site. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you get involved with this coverage?
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I was watching all these videos of Lahaina burning on social media. As more details started to emerge, it became clear how awful the devastation was. By midday Wednesday, I was helping with some reporting on our initial story. It evolved from that into, You’re close and have been there and are familiar with the area; are you able to go?
You were still able to fly in?
There were still flights going in, but nonessential travel was heavily discouraged. My flight was fortunately not canceled, though many others were.
What was the first thing you did when you arrived?
I got off the plane and immediately began interviewing people. The airport was packed — at that time, they were still trying to move tourists out. I talked to a couple who cut their honeymoon short because they didn’t want to take resources.
How did you plan your coverage?
When I’m traveling for breaking news, the directive from my editors is essentially, If you see something, throw it in the Slack channel and we’ll figure out what to do with it. That’s one thing that’s nice about The Times’s live blog — it’s very up-to-the-minute reporting. We’re encouraged to share any on-the-ground observation.
You’ve covered many wildfires in California, including the Camp Fire in 2018. How has that experience been helpful?
I’m able to compare what I’m seeing here with some of the big wildfires in California. In more than a decade of covering them, I have an understanding of why wildfires have become so much more dangerous and damaging.
How close have you gotten to the fires?
I’ve mostly been reporting around Kahului, where the shelters are. I went to a press conference on Thursday where Gov. Josh Green was speaking. I’ve also flown over Lahaina and done some reporting from the sky.
What protective gear did you bring with you?
By the time I got involved, it was after the most immediate danger had passed. There’s not a necessity to be in the actual midst of the flames, so I just flew in with a mask and a pair of goggles for the smoke, which I haven’t needed to use so far.
Why is having reporters on the ground so important?
There’s an understanding that you develop in casual conversations with people, even those you won’t end up quoting. At the shelter on Thursday, I was hanging around talking to a woman who lost everything when her neighborhood burned down, and somebody came up and offered her a cold, fresh coconut with a straw in it. I thought, That’s an “only in Hawaii” moment.
Officials have strongly discouraged visitors from traveling to the island, whose economy relies on tourism, while the crisis continues. How are local businesses navigating that?
On the one hand, nobody wants to take resources, and a lot of locals were frustrated that some vacationers were acting like everything was normal, but there are also working people here who don’t want to lose income and don’t have a choice but to keep working. We saw this dynamic play out during the pandemic with essential workers and in Hawaii itself. When you have a service economy, it’s a tough needle to thread.
Are local people generally planning to return and rebuild, or are they looking to move elsewhere?
Many people I’ve talked to have said they don’t know where else they would go. It’s going to severely exacerbate what was already a housing market in crisis. There are some people who came to Hawaii to work in the service industry — snorkeling, boat tours, bartending — and if they have connections to the mainland, they may go back, which will probably create a challenge in the work force as Maui rebuilds.
What has been the most challenging part of your reporting?
For understandable reasons, there’s a frustration with or suspicion of people parachuting in and foregrounding the experiences of visitors. I’m trying to be mindful of that by telling people that the only way for people outside Hawaii to understand what is happening is for us to talk to them and tell their stories as truthfully and deeply as we can. The last thing we want to do is to not reflect the experience of people who are living through this.
I’ve also heard from lots of residents who are helping with the huge mutual-aid efforts around the island that they do want that story to be told, and they want people to know that they need, and will continue to need, lots of help.