Skip to main content
School Of Communications

Miracles in Maui: Journalism Students Film Documentary on Hawaii Wildfire

Four BYU Journalism Seniors Filmed and Produced “Hope for Lahaina” Documentary After Wildfire Disaster

Wildfires spread through Lahaina, Hawaii, in Aug. 2023. The disaster left over 7000 local residents in need of shelter and the community has been working together for months to rebuild. In Oct. 2023, four BYU journalism students and two professional staff mentors traveled to Maui to produce a documentary that would share the community’s story. The documentary, titled “Hope for Lahaina: Witnesses of the Maui Wildfires,” was created as part of the students’ capstone class and premiered on Dec. 7, 2023,. The 15-minute documentary is now available to watch on YouTube.

Comms Student Trevor Myers Filming in Wildfire Wreckage in Maui
Trevor Myers walks through a burnt-down home with a handheld 4K camera.
Photo by Melissa Gibbs

When journalism students Trevor Myers, Aubree Blanchard Jennings, Anna LaTour and Alexa Elliott Johnson first began brainstorming for their documentary, the Maui wildfires quickly emerged as the topic that interested them most. Myers and Jennings researched the story, looking for spiritual angles and ties to Utah. The students reached out to students in Utah with connections in Maui and Lahaina, as well as Church leaders and government officials on Maui. After finding sources , coming up with questions and discovering the story, the four students, along with their faculty mentors Melissa Gibbs and Alan Neves, traveled to Hawaii for five days to film and conduct interviews.

LaTour described always having a camera on hand, even in the car. Some shots came from playing around as they drove, making observations and filming whatever drew their attention. “The story kind of writes itself as you go along,” said LaTour. “All in all, it’s not our story. It’s their story.”

For Elliott Johnson, going to major burn sites and interacting with the community opened her eyes to the reality of natural disasters. “A family led us to where their home used to be, and I never expected to see things like rivers where the tires and plastic had melted off and dried, or a plastic fence that had melted and curved down because the fire was so hot,” Elliott Jonhson said. “It gave me a better understanding of the depths of a disaster and what people go through that you never quite fully experience when you’re just watching it on TV.”

While the destruction left by the fires was devastating, the students encountered miracles throughout their time in Lahaina. After scheduling conflicts caused an interview to be canceled, Elliott Johnson received a phone call from the source, who explained that she jumped into the ocean to escape the fires. After the phone call, “things just fell into place,” Myers said. The team found a way to complete the interview, and it ended up being a major part of the documentary.

Elliott Johnson saw miracles throughout the entire documentary process, not just while in Lahaina. After returning to BYU, the team had to weave together interviews of 16 different people in a way that did justice to what the people in Lahaina had been through. “We were definitely guided as we prayed and tried to do our best,” Elliott Johnson said. “We were guided to tell the story the way it needed to be told and develop a story that was meaningful for the people we interviewed.”

Comms Students Interview Maui Resident Impacted by Wildfires in the wreckage of his home
Anna LaTour interviews fire victim Vance Honda in the ruins of his family's home as Alexa Elliott Johnson and Alan Neves oversee lighting and cameras.
Photo by Trevor Myers

The team members said they hope the documentary brings light to the situation in Lahaina and communicates hope to audiences, encouraging them to hold onto their communities.

Having grown up in Hawaii, Myers said seeing the situation in Lahaina hit close to home. “It made me think about how hard it would be to go through something like this,” he said. “One of the people we spoke to reminded me of my grandma, and it was really sad. It helped me see the importance of sharing this story and having people know that this is a very real situation and there is still a lot to be done.”

Being Chinese American, LaTour felt a connection between the community in Lahaina and her own heritage. “The feeling of love and community there is something that binds these people to their land, to their culture and heritage, no matter what happens. After being there for five days, I felt like I was part of a community. It makes me hold on to my culture, too.”

Even through tragedy, the students found that there can be good, and they want their audience to see that goodness. “Remember that there is still hope in tragedy and don’t forget the people of Lahaina,” Elliott Johnson said.

“Hope for Lahaina: Witnesses of the Maui Wildfires” was recently accepted into the Zions Indie Film Fest. It will be shown during the 2024 festival, which runs from Feb. 26 to Mar. 2.