California Wildfire Survivor Feels Good About Helping the Survivors of Lahaina Wildfires

It was a productive day — Jonathan Pehrson had spent it consolidating items in a remote storage unit for things that didn’t fit in the ‘fifth wheel’ that he was renting near Lake Hughes in California. It was early evening nearly four years ago, Aug. 12, 2020, and he was driving home when he realized the clouds in the distance filtering the setting sun was actually smoke from a fire that was well on its way to destroying 31,000 acres of forest and leaving him homeless.

“There was a Forestry Service vehicle in my driveway,” he recalled. “They told me I had 15 minutes to get some things and get out of there. Fortunately, I had relatives in the area so there was a place for me to stay, but, when I returned, what remained of my landlord’s home, my neighbors’ and my residence was just ashes.”

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Pehrson spent hours sifting through the ashes, all that was left of his home, looking for anything that could connect him with his former life, hoping he could find medals from his previous service in the Army. All he could find, however, was a custom piece of jewelry he’d 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 back a piece of my life,” he said. “When I see people in Maui who have lost almost everything to the wildfire, I have much empathy with them, and can relate to how they feel.”

Pehrson is one of roughly 110 USACE volunteers working on Maui to clean up wildfire debris and clear the way for people to rebuild their lives in the wake of devastating fires that swept the area last August. The Corps of Engineers is part of the federal team responding to disasters under the leadership of 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 support functions, including firefighting, temporary housing, public health and medical services.

wildfire debris lahaina
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors conduct vessel debris removal operations near the harbor in Lahaina, Hawai‘i, Jan. 27. USACE PHOTO BY ROBERT DEDEAUX

USACE provides Emergency Support Function 3, Public Works and Engineering, for federally declared disasters. The Maui wildfires displaced nearly 10,000 people, destroyed almost 1,600 homes, much of the Lahaina historic district, and killed more than 100 people.

Pehrson’s job in Lahaina is tracking the thousands of tons of debris removed from wildfire impacted areas that are delivered to the Pioneer Mills Temporary Storage Site and West Maui (Olowalu). Ash and soil debris are sorted and either transported to the temporary landfill for containment in Olowalu, or in the case of uncontaminated concrete and steel, recycled.

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The USACE mission in Maui has been primarily debris removal and restoration of commercial and residential plots of land. To date, more than 159,000 tons of debris has been removed from the impacted areas to a temporary containment area, and another 235,000 tons of concrete and steel are being safely recycled.

USACE is also managing the construction for a 169-unit temporary housing site in Lahaina, Hawaii, on a 34-acre site which will be called Kilohana, meaning Lookout Point. USACE also oversaw the reconstruction of the King Kamehameha III Elementary School, which was dedicated in March 2024.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Temporary Power Planning and Response Team personnel and Soldiers with the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) completed the assessment and installation of two FEMA generators at water wells located in the hills above Lahaina to power the pump facilities and help restore critical infrastructure needs to west Maui. USACE PHOTO BY CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 MAKSYM ZYMIN

Nearly four years after the Lake Hughes Wildfire, Pehrson now works as a civil engineering technician working on navigation and levee projects throughout the Bay area for the San Francisco District. But his real passion is the USACE Emergency Response function. Volunteering for emergency response deployments is his way of helping people who are in need and the bonus for him is feeling of helping others and the camaraderie of USACE emergency responders.

“There’s a whole family of people in USACE who volunteer to support federal responses to emergencies. You often get to see coworkers again from other missions. And there’s much teamwork,” he said. “It reminds me of younger days as a first responder while a Soldier, it’s an honor being part of this team.”

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