The largest wildfire in Hawaii history was set by brush fires fanned by the winds of Hurricane Dora on Aug. 8. According to Jeffco Animal Control Supervisor Christine Padilla, those winds made the Maui fire different from the wildfires she has seen in Colorado.
“The Maui fire was so fast because the winds were from a hurricane. They were going from what I heard was 90 miles an hour,” Padilla said. “So, the fire spread so quickly that there was no escaping it.”
The fires have been all over the news and social media. The news focus has been on the human casualties, but Padilla said there was another community affected — the animals of Maui.
“The mission came through NACA, the National Animal Control Association,” Padilla said. “There was a request for an assist that came through and one of my officers had seen it and said ‘Hey, I really would like to go.’”
Padilla got the request and did a little research before deciding that she wanted to go as well. In fact, other members of the team also wanted to help their Maui colleagues.
“We passed it on to our manager, then through our IMT and the Undersheriff,” Padilla said. “The Undersheriff approved for us to get deployed.”
Meanwhile, the Maui Humane Society was posting updates about their work. People had problems getting into the burned areas for several days. When they finally got in, the job was much bigger than they expected. Maui Humane Society CEO Lisa Labrecque wrote an open letter on Sept. 5 describing the experience, including the need for help.
“When we got there, Maui Humane Society and the animal control there seemed very stressed,” Padilla said. “They’d been working super long hours. They hadn’t had any time off. They were exhausted.”
Padilla said she went to work immediately to help.
“They were very grateful for our work,” she said. “And we were grateful to come and help and do whatever we can do just to ease the load plus all the stress. (The Maui team) knew people who had lost their homes and their animals. They were doing the best that they could.”
Padilla said her team took care of the animal control needs on the north side of the island, where the town of Lahaina was burned down.
“We essentially did animal recovery in the area,” she said. “They would give us addresses to go to and then we would go on to the properties and recover the deceased animals.”
She said the job included scanning the deceased pets for RFID chips. Padilla collected the owners’ contact information and handed it over to the Maui team members. They handled the job of contacting the owners.
Padilla added that her team also had duties to help feed and water the strays and wild animals in the burn zones.
“I think the third day got me a little bit,” Padilla said. “We ran into a man there who was working in the fire zone. And he had lost a lot.”
Padilla talked to the man, asking about his experience with the fire. She didn’t realize where she was standing until he told her. “He said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s my auntie’s house. That’s my uncle’s house. And that’s my cousin’s house.’ The houses were burned to the ground.” She said these conversations with survivors helped her gain perspective on the gravity of the losses from the fire.
“For the houses that did survive, there’s no electricity, they don’t have it,” Padilla said, choking up a bit as she spoke. “At the time we were down there, you couldn’t use the water. So, they’re dealing with that. Some people have generators, some people didn’t have anything.”
Padilla added that many still chose to stay home despite the hardships, including air contamination.
“The air wasn’t great. They were testing and returning positive for lead and arsenic in the ash. So, when we went in, we had to wear booties, and a respirator or M95 mask, and gloves,” she said. “The EPA workers and other people that were working in the zone as well were fully in PPE.”
Padilla said her interactions with the residents of the towns were mixed, which was understandable due to the circumstances.
“Some people were angry. They wanted to hold somebody accountable,” Padilla said. “Other people were just grateful that they survived. These people were trying to figure out what they were going to do. They lost their jobs, their homes, family members, their pets.”
Padilla said that the struggles of the people of Maui are not expected to end quickly. She is back now, but the Jeffco Animal Control is not done helping the Maui Humane Society.
“I was there for a week. One of our other officers is down there this week. And then we have two more going in October,” Padilla said.
She added that JCSO is not the only agency sending officers. The Maui Humane Society sent the call across the country and many other agencies answered.
“They plan on having animal control from other agencies out there to do their animal recovery through the end of October,” Padilla said. For more information on the Maui Humane Society, go to MauiHumaneSociety.org. Follow the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office on Instagram to see updates as other officers deploy to help the Maui animal community.