DVIDS – News – California Wildfire Survivor Feels Good About Helping Lahaina Wildfire Survivors

It was a productive day; Jonathan Pehrson had stored his belongings in a remote storage unit for items that wouldn’t fit in the “fifth wheel” he rented near Lake Hughes, California. It was almost four years ago, August 12, 2020, early in the evening and he was driving home when he realized that the clouds in the distance filtering the setting sun were actually smoke from a fire that was on its way to destroying 31,000 hectares of forest. destroy. and leaving him homeless.
“There was a Forest Service vehicle in my driveway,” he recalls. “They told me I had 15 minutes to grab some stuff and get out of there. Luckily I had family in the area so there was a place for me to stay, but when I came back, what was left of my landlord’s house, my neighbors’ house and my home was nothing but ashes.”
Pehrson spent hours sifting through the ashes, all that was left of his home, looking for anything that could connect him to his past life, hoping that he could find medals from his previous service in the army. However, all he could find was a custom piece of jewelry he had made in Florida.
“Now that I work for the Army Corps of Engineers, I know that ash footprints are toxic, but at the time I was just trying to get a piece of my life back,” he says. “When I see people in Maui who have lost almost everything because of the wildfire, I have a lot of empathy for them and I can relate to how they feel.”
Pehrson is one of about 110 USACE volunteers working on Maui to clear wildfire debris and clear the way for people to rebuild their lives after the devastating fires that ravaged the area last August. The Corps of Engineers is part of the federal disaster response team led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the statutory authority for most federal disaster response activities and calls for 15 emergency response functions, including fire suppression, temporary housing, public health, and medical services.
USACE provides Emergency Support Function 3, Public Works and Engineering, for federally declared disasters. The Maui wildfires displaced nearly 10,000 people, destroyed nearly 1,600 homes, much of the historic Lahaina neighborhood, and killed more than 100 people.
Pehrson’s job in Lahaina is to track the thousands of tons of debris removed from wildfire-affected areas and delivered to the Pioneer Mills and West Maui (Olowalu) temporary storage site. Ash and soil waste are sorted and transported to the temporary landfill for containment at Olowalu, or, in the case of uncontaminated concrete and steel, recycled. The USACE mission in Maui consisted primarily of debris removal and rehabilitation of commercial and residential properties. To date, more than 159,000 tons of debris from affected areas have been removed to a temporary containment area, and a further 235,000 tons of concrete and steel are being safely recycled.
USACE is also managing the construction of a 169-unit transitional housing site in Lahaina, Hawaii, on a 34-acre site that will be called Kilohana, meaning lookout point. USACE also oversaw the reconstruction of King Kamehameha III Elementary School, which was dedicated in March 2024.
Nearly four years after the Lake Hughes Wildfire, Pehrson now works as a civil engineering technician on navigation and levee projects in the Bay Area for the San Francisco District. But his real passion is the USACE Emergency Response function. Volunteering at disaster relief efforts is his way of helping those in need and the bonus for him is the feeling of helping others and the camaraderie of the USACE responders.
“There is a whole family of people in USACE who volunteer to support federal responses to emergencies. You regularly see colleagues from other missions. And there is a lot of teamwork,” he said. “It reminds me of my younger days as a first responder and as a soldier. It is an honor to be part of this team.”

Date of recording: 20.05.2024
Date posted: 20.05.2024 21:02
Story ID: 471806
Place: LAHAINA, Hello, USA

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