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A Return To Lahaina? Camping Out On His Vacant Lot Sounds Perfect To This Fire Victim

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A Return To Lahaina? Camping Out On His Vacant Lot Sounds Perfect To This Fire Victim

Jun 11, 2024 | 8:15 am ET
By Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat
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Mario Siatris, center, says his fire-ravaged property on Mela Street still feels like home. This is what his lot looked like last November before the federal government cleared it of debris, hazards and toxic chemicals. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
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Mario Siatris, center, says his fire-ravaged property on Mela Street still feels like home. This is what his lot looked like last November before the federal government cleared it of debris, hazards and toxic chemicals. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The lot where Mario Siatris’ century-old plantation house stood is now a blank slate. Gone is the Lahaina wildfire’s toxic detritus, the lifeless trees with blackened trunks.

On a recent morning, the sight of heaps of gravel ready to be spread over clean dirt drew a smile across Mario’s face. The gravel, a form of erosion control, serves as confirmation that test results from soil samples excavated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month showed no sign of the toxic contaminants spewed onto the Lahaina landscape during the Aug. 8 fire. 

“It looks like a new place,” Mario said. “Now that everything’s cleared away, it looks better. I can picture the future.”

With the soil deemed safe, Mario’s property is no longer under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Now it’s in the hands of Maui County, which will ultimately decide when property owners like Mario can move back onto their lots. 

Some people whose homes burned down in Lahaina last August are too traumatized to even think about returning to their properties. Others say they won’t go back until the 101 people who died in the nation’s deadliest modern-day wildfire have been laid to rest and memorialized by their families. Then there are those who say they’ll rebuild their houses before moving back.

Mario is eager to reinhabit his property in the burn zone as soon as possible. Now that the soil tests have come back clear, he’d rather camp on his own land than rent out somebody else’s house.

“Technically, there’s still gates that you have to clear to get into the neighborhood, you have to show a pass and you have to be out of there by 4 p.m.,” said U‘i Kahue-Cabanting, Mario’s business partner and former housemate. “But we’ve heard rumors about people camping already on top of their gravel and saying, basically, ‘Screw it. There’s no housing for me so I’m going to camp on top of the gravel on my land.’ And that’s what we’re thinking about doing, too.”

Mario and U‘i are working to recover from their fire losses together and they’ve been scheming for months to ship a custom-made trailer from Oregon to Maui to serve as a temporary housing solution.

When the 26-foot rig arrives next month, the business partners plan to park it on Mario’s lot and reside there until he can line up the funds to build a new house. Coming up with the money for reconstruction, they predict, could take years.

But now that Mario’s lot has been cleared of wildfire-related hazards, he’s hatched a plan to buy a couple of Costco gazebos and enclose them with plywood, order a portable toilet and rig a shower nozzle onto a tankless water heater. With a generator and some kitchen tools, Mario and U‘i figure they can fashion a pretty comfortable existence until they’re able to move into their trailer, which is large enough to sleep five people.

Mario knows he needs county approval to legally move back onto his property in the heart of the Lahaina burn zone. But he doesn’t think local government has enough manpower to enforce its own rules. And he imagines it might be too politically risky for the county to go after disaster victims who simply wish to repatriate their own land nearly a year after the fire.

“It’s going to take a long time, I realize that, for the neighborhood to come back,” Mario said. “And then, it’s almost going to be like a race. There’s thousands of people who are going to be racing to hire contractors, racing for financing. Right now the county wants us to wait but I just need a place to stay and if it’s safe enough, why not? It’s home.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency housing program ended on Monday, which means Mario no longer has a free place to stay at the Aston Kaanapali Shores, where he’s lived as a government-sponsored disaster victim for nearly 10 months.

Gov. Josh Green sent out a news release Friday saying that the state was still working on an extension of the program but that there would be ongoing support for those who were still sheltering in FEMA’s hotel program. The release said “no family will be left behind during this critical period” as government agencies help families transition into longer-term housing solutions.

The owner of the condo unit that Siatris occupied has assured him he can stay for as long as he needs without charge. So he and U‘i are exploring the possibility of staying in place at the condo until their trailer arrives.

But Mario’s more excited about his plan to camp on his lot than he is about the prospect of staying a few extra weeks in the condo.

“I’m ready to have some normalcy,” Mario explained. “It’s been a long year to be away from my land, and I know I’m blessed to have it. I just want to be back.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.