Maui Strong

Lauren Knobel ’84 recounts her experiences as a volunteer veterinarian after the fires that destroyed parts of Maui in August 2023.

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By Angela Knight ’01

As she described the destruction, Lauren Knobel ’84 cried for the first time since deadly wildfires broke out on Maui—the island she calls home.

We’ve all seen photos and drone footage of Lahaina’s torched Front Street and harbor, and what Knobel describes as the “slices of life” left behind on August 8: paint cans, cars, maybe a whole house. It’s different viewing those images from a distance. For Knobel, they’re personal.

Front Street is where the annual Pa‘u Parade took place in June. Knobel, along with other riders on horseback, their island neighbors, and friends, celebrated Hawaii’s King Kamehameha. Knobel’s horse wore lace. It’s too soon to say where or even if the parade will be held next year.

To put the destruction in numbers: “[It] took the lives of 115 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes,” according to Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism. “The disaster area had more than 800 business establishments with about 7,000 employees. The daily total business revenue of those establishments is estimated to be $2.7 million.”

While Lahaina suffered the most damage, other parts of Maui were hit by wildfires as well. In Kula, located in the central part of the island roughly an hour’s drive from Lahaina—part of an area referred to as upcountry—Knobel spotted smoke and fire across the gulch from her house, about a mile away. Everyone was on edge, wondering if they’d receive the order to evacuate. She recalls warning her 86-year-old mother, who lives next door, to pack her bags, as well friends who’d gone shopping: “This is close; this is different.”

Primarily an agricultural community, Kula features lots of horses and cattle, farms, and pastures. Knobel, a veterinarian for more than 30 years, knew she needed to move her friends and their elderly parents who lived nearby—along with their many animals—away from the fire. They worried about fallen wires and trees, and strong winds that might fan the flames. It was a long night that turned into weeks of work. For 48 hours, they were without electricity and had to use bottled water for drinking and cooking—but their homes were spared.

After the fire, Knobel pitched in by teaming up with the doctors and staff from Makawao Veterinary Clinic—located near her home in Kula—to treat animals impacted by the fires. They left early in the morning and took the road around the back side of the island. With steep cliffs and no guardrails, it’s not the usual commute to Lahaina.

(Photos courtesy Lauren Knobel)

Moving the clinic’s large truck each time, they set up shop in several locations outside the burn zone. They were among a number of volunteer teams, some from neighboring islands, that provided care, food, water, crates, and flea control at no charge. People brought in supplies by boat, and others trapped stray cats and dogs and took them in for treatment. It was a community effort.

“It was a really rewarding situation,” Knobel says, “because we’re helping houseless people by providing veterinary care. We’re helping unemployed people who [had] just lost their jobs. And we were helping the underserved community that never had that care. We’re still doing a lot of good out there.”

The Maui Humane Society, where Knobel also volunteered, estimates that 3,000 pets were affected by the fires. The Humane Society’s website features many wide-eyed cats in carriers and cages; the animals from Lahaina are flagged with a red banner. More come in every day. They’re the ones who’ve survived, but many did not.

Lisa Labrecque, PMC ’02, took over as Maui Humane Society’s chief executive officer just a few weeks before the fires. “It was a crash course in disaster,” she says. Both veterinary clinics burned down in Lahaina, so the Humane Society provided triage, food, supplies, and wellness care, and treated mild conditions in the days after the fires. Upcountry, the Humane Society also brought in hay and tanker trucks of water.

And dozens and dozens of volunteers, like Knobel, showed up to help after the fires. There was an “outpouring of support and donations” from around the world, Labrecque says.

(She estimates that there are 300 to 400 cats left in the burn zone that need to be trapped and treated. The Humane Society is maintaining 75 feeding stations; that’s about 1,000 pounds of cat food per week.)

(Photos courtesy Maui Humane Society)

Although Knobel has kept her veterinary license current, she retired from regular practice in 2018. Before that, she was a partner at Grand Lake Veterinary Hospital in Oakland and Seven Hills Veterinary Clinic in San Francisco. Through the years, she returned home to Maui to care for family, but she always knew she needed an exit strategy before leaving her practice for good.

That came in the form of a 38-foot sailboat named the Dragonfly. On March 19, 2020, Knobel and her husband were docked in La Paz, Mexico, right before the United States closed the border due to COVID. They left the boat and flew home to Maui. It was peaceful, she says, with no tourists or traffic, but the island’s economy suffered. She’s worried the fire will cause people to stay away again—even though the west side of the island (other than Lahaina) opened back up on October 8.

She recently departed Maui for Mexico to board the Dragonfly and restart retirement, but beforehand, she said goodbye to the cats in the burn unit on Maui. A black-and-white feline named Rudy, in particular, formed an impression—after he had eluded capture for three weeks. He spent over a month receiving burn treatments and was recently reunited with his owners.

With all that’s happened, is Knobel concerned about leaving the island? “We’ve been through different disasters … this community is so strong. People have this tenacity, spirit. It ultimately comes down to the aloha spirit that creates this upcountry strong line, Maui strong. It binds everyone together.”