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Montana woman from Hawaii impacted by two wildfires two weeks apart

A pastor at Church on the Move in Plains has been impacted by wildfires in both Lahaina and Sanders County.
Jessica Peterson
Posted at 1:43 PM, Sep 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-18 15:43:05-04

PLAINS — “It’s an amazing place,” said Plains resident Jessica Peterson who is originally from the Philippines and moved to Lahaina in Hawaii when she was eight years old.

Peterson says that Lahaina was a tight-knit community while she was growing up.

“Lahaina was my playground. It was a lot of really neat places to be with all the ethnicities that was there. The school that we grew up in, I would just walk from there to the Banyan Tree and the Banyan Tree was a really big part of Lahaina,: Peterson recalled. "And just an amazing childhood, a lot of memories for sure,” said Peterson.

Peterson and her husband are pastors who moved from Lahaina to Plains to Plains 20 years ago. They felt called to Montana and came to Plains to be pastors at Church on the Move.

Peterson recalls the moment she found out about the fires that burned through Lahaina.

"It's Tuesday and I was actually here at the church running the clothing bank. And I was going through Facebook and seeing all the things that were going on and I was like wow it's really windy — what's going on, why it is so windy? I didn’t realize that Hurricane Dora was a part of the effect."

But after watching social media for the winds, but then news of a fire started to pop up on her feed.

“Throughout the day I was kind of watching that and all the sudden I saw there’s a fire and I'm like, "Ok they can get this," and then when I heard that the winds were 80-to-100 miles per hour. I was like there's no way and then when I saw videos of the place I still had hope that they were able to stop it,” said Peterson.

Peterson still had family in Lahaina and said she was sleepless the night after the fire broke out. She said that she texted and called her family members with no response. After not being able to contact them, Peterson says that it was an emotional time.

“I just cried. A lot of crying and a lot of worrying and you know just scared,” said Peterson.

Peterson was able to get in contact with some of her family members the Wednesday after the fire broke out. She explained how shocking the videos and pictures on social media were of the aftermath of the fire.

“It was shocking, heartbreaking, there's no way to comprehend the mass and diversity of the damage. It's been crazy to even think about it,” said Peterson.

Peterson says that her family is okay, but an uncle — and several of her friends did lose family members, homes, and jobs. Plains is 2,956 miles away from Lahaina, but Peterson says that despite the distance, the support here in Montana has been great.

"You know I've had a lot of people of come up and said, 'You know we’ve heard about Maui and you look like you're from there.' I’m wearing a happy hat, and I said, 'Oh yeah, you know my family has been impacted greatly.' And they're like, 'We’ve been praying for them.' And it's been a lot of really positive we’ve been thinking about them and praying about them,” Peterson told MTN News.

Peterson says that it's been a lot of hard emotions for her and because of the devasting losses there's a different understanding for others who might not have been affected.

But just 10 days after the fire that destroyed Lahaina, another fire in Plains sparked causing more devastation.

“If someone would have told me that I would have been touched by two wildfires in two weeks — we had to evacuate our daughter. She lives on River Road East. And so we were in Missoula and had to evacuate her right and way. And I was like okay. In a way, I had to put a pause on my emotions for Hawaii right now because I had to focus on what my daughter was going through and my family and of course my community,” said Peterson.

While the wildfire was hard for the community of Plains, Peterson said that like Lahaina, the community came together.

"It’s been good because the community like Hawaii has come together for the people and so it's been amazing to see the love and caring that they’ve all given to each other,” said Peterson.

Peterson says that she’s hoping the rebuilding is quick but knows that it will take a while to clean up the fire and would like to see it back to the Lahaina she knew and loved as a child but says that the community will come together to help each other come together while they rebuild.

“Lahaina’s people are really strong, they’re family-oriented and they will definitely come together as a community,” said Peterson.