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About 25 miles from devastated Lahaina, another wildfire is burning on Maui

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Maui, crews continue the difficult work of trying to find and identify the remains of those who died in the wildfire that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. But while the world has focused on the devastation in Lahaina, there is another wildfire still burning in the hills of Maui, some 25 miles away. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Kula, and he tells us that that fire has destroyed scores of homes there and left residents struggling with loss.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The Kula, or upcountry fire, as it's called, moved with explosive speed. The wind whipped it up a gulch behind Kyle Ellison's home on the edge of Haleakala National Park, one of Maui's natural gems. Ellison looked over to his wife and asked, do you smell that?

KYLE ELLISON: We looked behind us, and you just have smoke billowing out of the gulch 100 yards behind us.

WESTERVELT: The wildfire quickly jumped to a cluster of homes nearby, including the one Ross Hart and his family have lived in for 36 years.

ROSS HART: Sparks blew up over - it looked like wildfire and brimstone. I mean, it was beautiful but dangerous.

WESTERVELT: With several of his neighbors, last Tuesday night, Hart fought the flames hard with a mix of garden and fire hoses until the water pressure just died. Fountains of embers and choking smoke, he says, soon took over.

HART: As I watched the house start to catch fire in one corner, I ran in the house, grabbed my guitar and threw it in the truck, and I was gone.

WESTERVELT: The house where Hart raised his four kids is now only ash and debris. In the gray and black mess, what looks like a bright blue rock recovered in the rubble catches my eye.

HART: Yeah, it was a vase full of colored stone - like, marbles. It just melted down, and the colored stones are inside.

WESTERVELT: This mountainside community in Kula is nestled around the volcano, more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It boasts lush flora and fauna, rare species and stunning views of the Pacific. But the rough terrain, with its winding gulches and forests, has made it much harder for firefighters to contain the blaze. The fire so far has destroyed at least 19 homes and dozens of other structures. Days after it started, firefighting helicopters still circle overhead, making run after run at a fire that has scorched some 700 acres.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER FLYING OVERHEAD)

WESTERVELT: Ross is now sleeping in a house owned by his church. This entire small community is mourning dead and missing friends in devastated Lahaina, while also reeling from its own less-talked-about losses.

The fire is still going up here.

HART: Yes.

WESTERVELT: Do you guys feel a little bit forgotten, given all the attention on Lahaina?

HART: No. We just don't want to get forgotten. People like FEMA and stuff - they - we haven't even seen them yet.

WESTERVELT: So just like in parts of West Maui, this community quickly kicked into gear, creating its own relief effort. Local resident Niko Sena has been working long days, giving away goods at this pop-up roadside tent.

NIKO SENA: Canned foods, protein bars, diapers - you know, female hygiene stuff.

WESTERVELT: And water - because, complicating everything, the fire polluted the water supply here, as it did in parts of West Maui. The Kula community has been told not to use the water for anything because it likely contains benzene and other dangerous contaminants.

SENA: We've been advised not even to turn water on without ventilation and to not boil the water or anything because that expels the gases.

WESTERVELT: And ahead of possible storms next week, officials say they're considering cutting off power as a precautionary measure - something they did not do in Lahaina or here in Kula last week. Meantime, the community here says it will continue to rely on itself.

SENA: Get plenty of food, Auntie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah (clapping).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Homemade banana bread?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Whoo-hoo (ph).

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Kula, Maui.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.