Lessons From a Trauma Care Nurse Evacuated From the Maui Wildfires

A pediatric trauma nurse spends time every summer in Maui with her family. This year, they were caught in the middle of the wildfires, which destroyed the historic town of Lahaina.

Brittney Bunnell, RN, CNS, spends her days at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford overseeing the Pediatric Trauma Program, which involves coordinating care and working closely with Santa Clara County’s Office of Emergency Management. Recently, she had to put her training into use as she experienced a traumatic event of her own.

Seven months pregnant, Bunnell headed out with her family on their annual trip to Maui. She’s been going ever since she was born.

“My mom often says that I learned how to roll over in Maui,” she said.

Their family has a strong connection to the island—they’ve made friends with many of the business owners, whom they look forward to reuniting with every year. Every year, they stay at a hotel timeshare about a mile and a half north of Lahaina. The only way in and out of the hotel is through the historic town, where wildfires ripped through during their stay.

Cut off from the world for four days

On Tuesday, August 8, Bunnel and the rest of those on the island woke up without power, due to Hurricane Dora. That afternoon, as the winds whipped, she noticed smoke and flames south of their hotel. With no electricity, no cell phone service (the cell tower burned in the fire), and nowhere to go, Bunnel leaped into action.

“We had no idea how long this power outage would last,” Bunnell said. “We had some food and water we got from Costco, so I immediately started thinking about how we could ration it. And I had to make sure I had enough nutrition for myself and the baby.”

On top of that, she was traveling with her niece and nephew, ages 8 and 11. Every night, she huddled in the hallway with her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and husband while the kids were in the room. “We discussed how we were going to manage their mental traumas, how we could make them feel safe, and planned out routines for each day to help give the kids a sense of normalcy,” she said.

That was where Bunnell’s leadership as a trauma program manager came in—they decided on several plans, which some of the other guests picked up.

One was to create a buddy system if they had to go outside at night, so that someone would always know where their buddy was and be able to communicate to others if there was an emergency, as they couldn’t use their cell phones.

“Since it was so dark, the hotel found glow sticks that we could use,” she said. “We were worried about my niece, who is the youngest, getting lost, so we taped a glow stick on her back to keep track of where she was.”

Finally, Bunnell prepared for the worst.

“I asked the front desk what their evacuation plan was, to understand what we would need to do if the fire moved toward us, but they couldn’t give me a straight answer and eventually told me that one version of the plan was to go into the ocean,” she recalled. “Having a plan is crucial because it can prevent injuries and save lives by getting people to safety in an efficient way.”

On Friday, she and the other guests got the news that they were being evacuated. As they rode on the buses toward the airport, the driver warned them that they had to go through the remains of Lahaina.

“It was absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “We were cut off from everything, and that was the first thing we saw. It was the first time we understood what truly happened.”

Lessons learned

After going through this experience, Bunnell said there are items she will take with her on every trip from now on:

  • Flashlight
  • Portable power banks
  • Extra medicine
  • First aid kit

While she and her family are still processing what happened, Bunnell wants the focus to be on the affected communities.

“The locals, who are so kind and gracious, lost everything,” she said. “Our friends in Maui lost their homes, their businesses. It upended their lives. I can’t even imagine the emotional toll this is taking on them. It’s our turn to support them as they have a long and difficult road ahead.”


5 Responses to “Lessons From a Trauma Care Nurse Evacuated From the Maui Wildfires”

  1. Dr. Christina

    Glad to see a trauma center at Pedi Stanford. Have been a nurse now 50 years, .became a trauma psychologist as well in 1992. Important work now to heal the effects of trauma and do trauma prevention. Wrote about my experience in healing. See christinacampbell.com

  2. Mary Henry

    I had just read “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why”, while my husband and I vacationed in Hawaii. It was 2011, we were at a musical event, and suddenly everything came to a halt as the EM announced an impending tsunami and to evacuate. Lots of confusion. Our hotel had no plan and told us to wait for more information, but I didn’t hesitate (one of the lessons from the book). We packed everything and drove to higher ground in the middle of the night. We learned later that our hotel had flooded, the roads became impassable, and boats were destroyed. I am a firm believer in having a plan and acting on it. My heart breaks for Lahaina, and the incredible people there. Let us focus on helping them rebuild.

  3. Leigh Fraley

    My sister and nephews live there. It has been emotionally draining. I’m so glad you are safe and helped so many while over there. People who don’t live there, don’t realize the devastation and long term effects this will have for years to come. Their history is gone. It’s been just terrible. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. Gloria Schulz

    Thank you for this remarkable story. I am a retired LPCH Peds ICU RN who lives in the San Carlos hills above a nature preserve. And every summer and fall I worry about the possibility of wildfires in my area and the potential need to evacuate on the few roads that go down off of the hill.

  5. Jill Yano

    Brittney, thank you for sharing your story. I was also on a family vacation in Ka’anapali, a few miles away from Lahaina. We saw the smoke, the orange glow of the fire at night, didn’t know where our next meal would come from, whether we would still have running water at our hotel, whether the fire would be contained soon, etc. We had our bags packed in order to be ready to immediately evacuate. At the time, the North route was blocked, the South route was Lahaina, so we were basically blocked in for a couple days.
    We also relied on other hotel guests for information – disasters & tragedies tend to bring strangers together! We did our best to explain (but also shield) our 5 yr old from the scary reality of the situation. We were finally able to relax once we were evacuated to Oahu, but our hearts are still with those in Maui.


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