Lisa Francis was trying to drive home from her job at a bank in Lahaina when the firestorm caught up to her.
It was 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and she was trapped in traffic near the ocean. Whipped by bruising winds, the firestorm was raging its way west toward her and others in similar straits. She looked at the long column of abandoned cars ahead of her on Front Street and knew there was only one place to go — toward the water.
A stranger, a young man in his 20s, Ms. Francis said, rallied her and a small group of similarly stranded women, exhorting them to climb over the knee-high sea wall and take refuge on the strip of rocks along the water below.
They clambered onto the slippery rocks, Ms. Francis said. The fire roared through the cars and buildings along the street above, unleashing a choking wall of thick smoke. The oven-like heat pushed them farther down to the water’s edge, she said.
Facing the ocean, she clung tightly to a large boulder, afraid of being swept away by the crashing waves that were protecting her from an unrelenting shower of burning embers.
“A big wave would come and relieve us,” Ms. Francis, 54, a Hawaii native who has lived in Lahaina for 31 years, said during a phone interview on Friday. “So the waves really — the ocean — really took care of us.”
Still, the embers left her sleeveless arms with mosquito bite-size burns. Her eyes were seared by smoke and stung by salt water.
Hours passed, and the inferno continued to consume the town above.
Eventually, the fire dissipated. Ms. Francis and the others climbed back up the rocks and sat against the sea wall. A faint moon hovered over a dark sea. Lahaina’s burning harbor jutted into view.
It would be 1 a.m. before help arrived. Wedged into a truck barreling up Route 30 with other evacuees, Ms. Francis looked out on a charred landscape.
“Everything — scorched,” she said. “I felt like I was in a place I had never been before.”
Her neighborhood, just off the highway, had been leveled by the fire.
From a shelter at Maui Preparatory Academy, about 20 minutes north of Lahaina, she caught a ride to a friend’s house, where her family had gone to escape the fire. Her husband, John Francis, 66, was sleeping inside a car.
“I went by the car window and said ‘John, I’m here,’” Ms. Francis said. “He just broke down crying.”