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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This is where my heart is’: Woman hopes to rebuild after losing home in Lahaina, house under construction in Silver Lake

Mary Kaneko, 53, turns away from her burned home and looks to her friend Lisa Hovanec and service dog, Akela, (not pictured) after getting out of their vehicle and seeing the Silver Lake home for the first time on Thursday after the Gray fire consumed it last week near Medical Lake.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

One of the first things Mary Kaneko bought for her Silver Lake property when she arrived from Lahaina, Hawaii, was a red hummingbird feeder with little white flowers.

She hung it in a tree behind her unfinished small sage-colored A-frame as a way to remember her mother.

“When I stepped outside, there was a hummingbird hovering, whistling and singing to me,” Kaneko said. “So it was like my mom saying, ‘You’re home.’ ”

Kaneko, 53, finally felt at peace after a hard few years with a work injury that left her disabled.

Then her rental home in Lahaina, which she had yet to move out of, was destroyed in the Maui fires.

She feared for her friends and mourned the loss of her possessions and the memories they held. But she found some comfort that builders were almost finished with her Silver Lake home. Contractors were installing the floors and drywall, and landscapers were dropping off the gravel to finish her backyard.

When her contractor called Friday afternoon while she was out shopping, Kaneko expected good news that they had finished early. Instead, there was terror in his voice – a wildfire was quickly approaching.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Kaneko said.

She rushed toward Medical Lake only to run into a caravan of people evacuating with fire following close behind.

“It was so close to us that I now felt like my dog and I were running for our lives from the fire to get out,” she said.

The next day, she learned her new home had burned to the ground in the Gray fire – her second home lost to wildfire in 10 days.

“It all just seems like a bad nightmare,” she said. “I can’t believe it happened twice to me.”

‘Why not go live my dream?’

Kaneko grew up in Washington and is no stranger to how dangerous wildfires can be. She was evacuated from the fire storm in 1991 and watched the fire jump the highway as she left.

A tree on fire leaned over the road to meet a tree on the other side, igniting a new section of the forest, Kaneko said.

While her home survived, it was an impactful memory, she said.

About a decade ago, Kaneko, who worked as an esthetician and managed restaurants, went through a divorce.

Her children were grown and her parents had died, so she thought, why not have a fresh start?

“I’ve always wanted to live on an island. I’m a water girl,” Kaneko said. “So I thought, why not go live my dream?”

She moved to Lahaina, where she rented a duplex, worked on boats, made friends and spent lots of time scuba diving.

On July 4, 2017, she was working at Longhi’s restaurant on Front Street, a prominent street in the historic part of Lahaina, when she fell backward down a flight of stairs.

Kaneko injured her back and had to undergo surgery, which was unsuccessful and left her permanently disabled.

She still has a herniated disk in her back and walks with a cane. She moved in with friends while continuing to see specialists.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kaneko decided it was finally time to leave Hawaii. There were more specialists in Washington who could help with her back, so she began looking for property.

Her former brother-in-law mentioned a property across the street from his Silver Lake home was in foreclosure .

She bought the small lot and began planning to build a 755-square-foot home on the cozy property.

The little A-frame was partially built when Kaneko flew back to Washington from Maui early this summer. She moved into the construction zone before it had electricity or water, just so excited to have a place of her own, she said.

‘The most devastating’

Kaneko watched from afar, horrified as Lahaina burned. Dozens of her friends were missing for days.

The duplex she called home for years, where she planted trees, burned to the ground.

Kaneko’s current rental home, which she shared with roommates, also was lost. Her furniture, clothes and other personal items that were still in that house all burned.

She had brought what heirlooms she could fit in her suitcase to Washington with her, something for which she was thankful.

Kaneko spent days trying to support her friends who had lost everything. One roommate told her of spending eight hours in the ocean trying to escape the flames.

When he finally was pulled out of the water, he burned the soles of his feet because the ground was still so hot, she said.

Her final missing friend was located Wednesday. Not long after she received the news, she felt a little nudge to finally call and get her insurance policy set on her new house.

Her policy went into effect Wednesday, and less than 48 hours later, her house burned down along with so many more.

“I have an angel, honestly, because I had no intentions of getting full homeowners insurance until Monday,” she said.

Picking up the pieces

With evacuations lifted, Kaneko went to see the remnants of her home for the first time Thursday.

On the way out to the property, Kaneko told her friend Lisa Hovanec she hoped her hummingbird feeder survived.

Wearing oversized sweatpants and flip flops, Kaneko climbed out of her SUV to view the damage.

“These probably aren’t the best shoes for this,” Kaneko said. It’s all she has.

As she walked up the driveway, Kaneko turned away from the remnants of her house, looked to her friend and started to cry.

The hummingbird feeder had survived when nothing else did.

“I don’t understand how that is the only thing … that’s just my mom looking after me … and saying it’s going to be OK and you survived,” Kaneko said through tears.

As she surveyed the pile of rubble that was her house, she realized many of her heirlooms were now gone and began searching for something, anything, that survived to take with her.

Part of a vase and the license plate she just put on her trailer were all she could find.

While it was devastating to see her home gone, Kaneko said she’s motivated to rebuild.

Her insurance agent reached out Monday and was able to quickly help with funds for a temporary place to stay and some essentials.

“He reassured me that we’re going to get this home rebuilt,” Kaneko said. “He really came through for me.”

Her neighbors are supporting each other, too. Many of them are making plans to move back to their properties in RVs to supervise their rebuilds.

Kaneko wants to get back to her property as soon as possible.

“This is where my heart is. This is me. This is my home,” Kaneko said. “This is where I belong. This is my home. This is it.

“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, not even Hawaii. This just feels right, even in the state that it is now.”