Seward native helps combat effects of Hawaii wildfires


A Seward and Concordia University native has done his part and continues to help with the aftereffects of the Hawaii wildfires back in August of 2023.

Zach Potratz, a teacher at Emmanuel Lutheran in Maui, said the area he lived in was unaffected by the wildfires, but their satellite church in Lahaina suffered some damage.

“Fortunately, it was not completely destroyed,” Potratz said. “The fires were primarily in Lahaina and Upcountry in Kula. The old Lahaina town suffered almost complete fire damage and Upcountry in Kula suffered minor fire damage. However, people in the community across the whole island were affected because a lot of them had families in the Lahaina area.”

After the fires, Potratz said Emmanuel Lutheran began accepting food, water and clothing donations for the victims of the fires.

“Over the next few days we were at church every day accepting donations as well as giving food/clothes to people who needed it,” he said. “Our church/school partnered with a local business that had direct access to the victims who had just lost everything. This business was bringing truckloads of food and clothing into Lahaina every day for weeks. Eventually, our school stopped accepting food every day and began accepting it on the weekend because Lahaina started getting more supplies than they needed. It showed the great amount of community support across the Island for those affected.”

A few months after the fires, Potratz said Emmanuel Lutheran’s church partnered with Lutheran Church Charities Hearts of Mercy and Compassion program to put up a cross with a Bible verse on it for every person who passed away in the fires.

“The goal of this was to have a “memorial” for each victim of the fires. Family members or friends of the victims could come and visit the site and write a memory they have of the person. Every once and a while we will go back to the site to upkeep it and see many people visiting it,” he said. “Every once in a while when there is an event near the site of the crosses we put up in Lahaina, we will set up a table with devotion books and pass them out or just talk with people as they visit the site. With all of the generous donations we have received, our church and school have also been able to give out gift cards to places like Walmart, Target and Costco so that people affected can get the basic necessities like food.”

Potratz also said that donations from people around the world have helped their church be able to pay the tuition of four students who lost their homes in the fires.

Potratz said he has been volunteering since the fires ended roughly six months ago. He said people in the community of Lahaina are still feeling the effects.

“The whole historic town is burned to the ground,” he said. “Thousands are without homes, most people who don't have any other place to go are staying in the resort hotels and they don’t know how much longer they can. They definitely notice the effects of the fires. Most estimates say that it will take two to three years before people can rebuild their homes and could take over 10 years for the whole town to be rebuilt.”

Potratz said it has been a blessing to be able to volunteer his time.

“I have learned a lot from this experience,” he said. “You obviously hope nothing like this ever happens, but when it does, it is great to see a community rally together to help each other out.”