Tim Richards woke up on August 8 to the glow of a wildfire near his ranch on the island of Hawaii. “I looked out the window and went, ‘Holy crap. We’ve got a problem ahead of us,’” says the WSU alumnus.
A state senator from the Big Island, Richards (‘84 DVM) was tracking four separate blazes in his rural legislative district when he heard that Maui was experiencing deadly wildfires.
“We were fighting fires ourselves, including one that could have threatened a community of 7,000 with a single road to evacuate,” he says. “I give credit to our firefighters. It was that close.”
Homes were damaged in Richards’ district, but no one was killed. When those fires were under control, he turned his attention to Maui’s relief efforts, working his contacts and the phones.
“Cell phone towers are down, so there’s limited communication from the burned area,” Richards says. “When he can get through, I get calls from a Maui senator—Angus McKelvey—who says, ‘Hey Tim, can you work on this list of issues?”
Richards helped coordinate a flotilla of private planes that ferried emergency supplies like insulin and diapers to West Maui. He relayed messages to the governor and lieutenant governor—“I kept calling until I got through”—and connected animal control officers on Hawaii with the Maui Humane Society to help with lost pets.
“A lot of it is making sure that the right people are talking to each other,” Richards says. “One of the challenges is providing an organized response and not just haphazard actions.” The insulin delivery, for instance, required health department oversight to ensure the medication’s chain of custody was followed.
The big tasks of rebuilding and economic recovery still lie ahead, he notes. Maui’s losses from the wildfires are estimated as high as $6 billion, according to risk management company Moody’s RMS.
“Right now, we’re struggling with the loss of life and just the massive harm done,” Richards says. “But there’s also the economy, which is about 70 percent tourism related. People don’t have income, but they still have bills. As state legislators, those are things we’ll be looking at.”
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Valerye Huff Zimmerman (’10 Comm.) and her husband lost their condo to the Lahaina fire and now they get food to relief workers.
Joseph E. Cardoza (’72 Poli. Sci.), a retired judge, is helping connect fire survivors to legal information as chairman of Hawaii’s Access to Justice Commission.
Hawaii wildfires: Former WSU football player Hercules Mata’afa recounts helping parents escape before family home burned (The Athletic, August 14, 2023)
How to help Maui
Credible relief organizations accepting donations to help those affected by the wildfires, including pets