Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published in the Berkeley High Jacket.
At 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 8, Berkeley High senior Linden Koshland awoke to a sharp knock at her grandmother’s front door in Ka’anapali, Hawaii. It was a man from the neighborhood, informing residents that a massive fire was spreading in their direction. The fire had already consumed his own house. He urged the family to evacuate immediately.
Koshland and her family — her 80-year-old grandmother, her parents and her younger sister, Sophia — went outside. They’d seen smoke from distant fires earlier in the day but hadn’t heard any official warnings. Now the conflagration had grown close.
“You could see this orange dome of flames, not that far away from where we were,” Koshland said. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta get out of here.’”
Half an hour later, the Koshland family was driving in two cars north on Highway 30 toward Kapalua, listening to updates on the radio every 15 minutes. Power and cell service were down.
“We had no idea how far the fire had spread, if all of it had burned down, if anyone had died, if it was under control,” said Koshland. “We had no information.”
They arrived at a parking lot about 15 minutes away from the house, where they felt confident that the fire was farther away, and tucked in for the night.
But around 12:30 a.m., Koshland’s grandmother realized she’d left her phone at the house and insisted upon retrieving it immediately, with fires still blazing in the area.
“She left and we were all so stressed,” Koshland said. “It was 15 minutes, and then half an hour and then 45 minutes, and we were saying prayers. We were really scared. And then after about an hour, she came back.”
The next day brought more stress and confusion. The power was still out and information came only by word-of-mouth. “You had no idea what was true and what wasn’t true,” Koshland said. For three hours, her parents waited in line at a grocery store, but the line wasn’t moving and they left. After hearing a rumor that water would be shut off, the family filled pots and pans, though it didn’t end up being necessary.
By the afternoon, low on food, they decided to return to their grandmother’s house. Wind was blowing the fire away from the house, and the flames seemed far enough away. Still, the family kept their packed bags by the door, ready to evacuate on a moment’s notice.
By Thursday, they had secured plane tickets off the island, bought by a friend who they were able to contact during a brief moment of cell service. On the drive to Kihei, where they stayed for four days before their flight, they passed Lahaina and got a first-hand view of the fire’s worst devastation.
“We had driven through that exact place where it was all burned down the day before the fires had started,” said Koshland. “It looked totally different. You could see the destruction and the tangle of wire, the shells of burnt cars in the driveway. All of the houses were just gone.”
While eating dinner in Kihei, Koshland was struck by the surreal atmosphere of normalcy in the restaurant. “People were talking and laughing and having fun,” she said. “We just came from a place of an apocalypse and people here are just enjoying life.”
Koshland and her family were able to evacuate safely. Her grandmother Gina Biondi’s house was undamaged, but she is staying in California for now, waiting to return to Maui, where she’s lived for 20 years. With her support network of friends and “pretty thick skin,” she’ll be all right, Koshland thinks.
Barely a week after the fires, the Koshland sisters returned to school — Sophia to begin her first year at Berkeley High. They are still processing what happened.
“It was one of the first and only times I’ve had to be scared for my life and my family’s lives,” Koshland said. “I’ve been privileged enough to not really have to experience that before. So it was a really jarring experience.”
Multiple Berkeley High students impacted by extreme weather this summer
This summer, citizens worldwide have experienced the acute impacts of climate change, which played a role in making Hawaii more vulnerable to wildfire. While the Koshland family’s experience was extreme, it was not as unusual as it might have once been to experience extreme weather during summer break.
July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded. Cities across the world have been hit this year by extreme temperatures, floods, fires and major storms — all made more likely and by climate change.
In Lahaina, 115 have died from the massive fire, with hundreds remaining unaccounted for. Arizona residents suffered more than a month of temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. And multiple wildfires in Canada stemming from drought forced evacuations and scorched thousands of square miles.
Berkeley High students on break have not been spared. During summer programs, family vacations, and staying at home, they’ve been forced to grapple with what travel and summer breaks look like as climate change intensifies. Many have experienced the effects of extreme weather firsthand.
“We always talked about, like, ‘Oh, the effects are going to get a lot worse,’” said Maelle Griffin, a junior at BHS. “Some people just don’t believe in climate change, which is very frightening, because there’s now these physical manifestations.”
Griffin, who attended an acting program at Northwestern University in Chicago, experienced the smoke that had blown over from Canadian fires.
“The first day I was there, it was beautiful, sunny,” said Griffin. “And then the smoke rolls in. It slowly got worse and worse, to the point where we couldn’t go outside. Everyone was having trouble breathing.”
Others experienced extreme temperatures as heat waves swept across the country. Junior Azaria Stauffer-Barney traveled north to Sonoma County for a choir camp, where a heat wave drove temperatures up to 108 degrees.
“In the past, it had been like, 70s or 80s (on the first day),” said Stauffer-Barney. “So I think that was just kind of set off a little bell in my head going, ‘Oh, that’s not normal. That’s not really right.’”
During Stauffer-Barney’s program, many outside activities were cut short, or moved to later in the day to avoid high temperatures.
Experiencing extreme summer weather exacerbated by climate change has allowed students to closely feel the growing effects of global warming.
“It’s right here, right now,” said Stauffer-Barney.
Finola Jackson is a junior at Berkeley High.