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'Miracle house' owner hopes it will serve as a base for rebuilding Lahaina

The fire that devastated historic Lahaina in western Maui left a red-roofed house relatively unscathed. Its owner says he wants to open the house to the neighborhood to help the rebuilding process.
Patrick T. Fallon
/
AFP via Getty Images
The fire that devastated historic Lahaina in western Maui left a red-roofed house relatively unscathed. Its owner says he wants to open the house to the neighborhood to help the rebuilding process.

MAUI, Hawaii — When an inferno tore through Lahaina on the island of Maui, it reduced a historic and charming town to ash and rubble. But the fire left a red-roofed house seemingly untouched by the devastation around it.

"Everybody's calling it 'the miracle house,'" Trip Millikin, who owns the home at 271 Front St., told NPR. But that label makes him uncomfortable, he added, citing the flood of emotions that came with learning that while his house was spared, his community was gutted.

"Our hearts are broken from what's happened," he said. "We love our neighborhood and love our friends, and just cannot believe that that world that we knew so well and loved — it's gone forever."

Photos of the wooden house, standing intact while its neighbors were reduced to ashes, quickly became an online fascination. Millikin's friends call it a beacon of hope. To him, the historic house's survival means it has a new role to play.

"As soon as we can, we want to open it to our neighborhood and open it to everybody who worked on it, as a base to help rebuild our part of Lahaina," he said.

Nearly 100-year-old house withstood a historic fire

It's not easy to explain how or why the house survived a fire that obliterated hundreds of structures around it. Millikin points to two big factors: luck, and the metal roof he and his wife, Dora Atwater Millikin, installed during recent renovations.

"I think it's a combination of a commercial-grade corrugated metal roof, the stone [area] around the house, the palms around the house that absorb the heat — and a lot of divine intervention," he said.

The house has roots dating to 1925 — it's believed to have been moved from another location on Maui. After Millikin and his wife bought it in 2021, they finished a restoration project in 2022.

"We removed five layers of asphalt that were on the roof," Millikin said. When the new metal roof was installed, he added, it included an air pocket to allow heat to dissipate. At the ground level, they removed all vegetation along the house's dripline and added a stone buffer — a step taken to thwart not fires, but termites.

By intention or not, those changes jibe with wildfire guidance from the Colorado State Forest Service, which stresses the importance of steps such as reducing your home's ability to ignite.

The first priority mentioned on the CSFS checklist: ensuring the roofing material has a Class A fire rating — a designation that includes metal roofs.

Airborne embers are the most common source of wildfire spread, the Colorado agency's Daniel Beveridge told NPR.

Beveridge said there's no way to know for sure exactly what preserved the house on Front Street, but "the metal roof and lack of adjacent flammable material ... certainly limited the means by which the structure could have ignited."

The house at 271 Front St. in Lahaina survived a wildfire because of its metal roof, a lack of vegetation along its dripline, "and a lot of divine intervention," its owner says.
/ National Register of Historic Places nomination
/
National Register of Historic Places nomination
The house at 271 Front St. in Lahaina survived a wildfire because of its metal roof, a lack of vegetation along its dripline, "and a lot of divine intervention," its owner says.

The house sustained minimal damage

When strong winds from Hurricane Dora drove the fire through Lahaina, large embers soared through the air — but they didn't cause a catastrophe at the Millikins' house.

The fires singed one part of the structure, but the only damage there was a warped PVC pipe on a wall. He also found paint blistered by intense heat on a wall near the kitchen.

"What's behind it are the original — I think they're redwood — planks from about 1920. They didn't burn," Millikin said.

A nearby section that holds a propane tank was also left intact.

"Can you imagine if that propane tank caught?" he asked. "The whole place would have gone."

Following a fire from 5,000 miles away

The Millikins weren't in Lahaina when the fire hit: they've been visiting friends and family in Massachusetts. And with so much uncertainty, they haven't been able to return to Maui yet.

Millikin, a retired portfolio manager, says he first learned about the wildfire from a friend who was fleeing the blaze.

From some 5,000 miles away, he got live updates from his friends who were on the ground, watching their neighborhood be destroyed. As more houses exploded into flames, his friends finally fled.

Then came the miraculous news that his house had survived.

"Dora and I, the term is 'survivor's guilt,' and we feel awful, just awful," Millikin said.

"There was a neighbor who sent a note to us and said, 'Oh, you won the lottery.' And I almost wanted to throw up when I got that. I felt so badly, because these are my friends. These are my neighbors. And that's all gone."

"It's so horrifying because this is just the most wonderful community of people. Everybody knows everybody, everybody works together, it's a community."

Before they bought the house, the Millikins had been living in an apartment nearby for around 10 years. When they managed to buy the dilapidated oceanfront house that had been sitting on the market, neighbors welcomed the news that they planned to restore it.

"Hawaiians worked on this house"

A "before" picture shows Trip and Dora Millikin's house in Lahaina before renovations began in 2021.
/ Nomination to the National Registry of Historical Places
/
Nomination to the National Registry of Historical Places
A "before" picture shows Trip and Dora Millikin's house in Lahaina before renovations began in 2021.

A flood of names come to mind when Millikin thinks of the 20 or so people who w0rked to renovate the house. Names like Bill and John; Eric and Baba. Or Hoi, the carpenter who helped coordinate the work, and Kenji and Wayne, who painted, and Ongele and Gloria, the husband and wife who repaired stonework and did other tasks.

The list also includes Harry, he said, who by virtue of his work on the house's roof has the right to park at the house and go surfing any time he wants to.

All of them, he added, should feel proud that the house is still standing — and they should know they're welcome to return when they can.

"They're part of our ohana," Millikin said, using the Hawaiian term for family. "And when this is all over, we're going to have them all there to celebrate that house."

After the renovation, the house was nominated to join the National Registry of Historical places. Identified as the Pioneer Mill Company/Lahaina Ice Company Bookkeeper's House, the dwelling was used by bookkeepers of a company that did everything from delivering ice and soda water to selling electric power to the town of Lahaina.

For now, a return is uncertain

There are many questions about when residents of the worst-hit parts of Lahaina might be able to come and survey what's left of their community. Officials warn of toxicity in the air, ground, and water. Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, two weeks after the fire.

"I'm probably coming home in a couple of weeks, or when I can," Millikin said, adding, "I can't stay at my house."

Friends have offered an apartment in a nearby town and Dora and Trip plan to come and volunteer to work in the recovery effort. When they do, they'll also cope with the shock of seeing Lahaina without the people and places that, until Aug. 8, made up the town's fabric.

"We want to help our town," Millikin said. "The world I knew is gone and will never come back, and my heart is broken."

The work ahead of them now, he said, is to find ways to help.

"This is the place we love, and it's home and we want to protect it."

After a pause, Millikin added, "Alright, I'm gonna stop. Because I'm gonna start crying."

NPR digital archivist and researcher Will Chase contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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