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Maui wedding photographer speaks out as wildfires leave local industry in question: 'Going to take years'

The catastrophic wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, have left wedding vendors and residents overall concerned about their futures and recovery as the blaze puts tourism in question.

The devastating and deadly wildfires in Maui have upended the lives of locals, including the wedding professionals who relied on Hawaiians and tourists alike turning to the Central Pacific island to celebrate their love.

Tad Craig, a wedding photographer who has lived in Maui, Hawaii, since 1993, is one of the many wedding vendors affected by the wildfire that started in Lahaina on Tuesday, Aug. 8. The fires have taken the lives of 99 people as of Tuesday morning and caused billions of dollars of damage.

"The immediate future is looking very bleak for the people of the islands and our wedding industry. I'm scared," Craig, who lives on Maui’s north shore on the other side of the island, wrote in an email to FOX Business.

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Craig said he had a photo shoot scheduled on the day the wildfire started on Maui’s west side. 

He recalled passing the north side of the Lahaina Bypass at around 3 p.m. and receiving a wildfire warning on his phone about 30 minutes later.

"Being a pro, I met with my clients and did my shoot, which actually went really great," he wrote.

Craig said he realized how bad the wildfire was after he concluded his photo shoot. 

Roads were closed, and cell phone connectivity was lost. It reportedly took him over a day to get back to his family as he and many others scrambled to evacuate as the blaze spread.

­In a public service announcement on Sunday, Aug. 13, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said the Lahaina wildfire claimed at least 93 lives, destroyed more than 2,700 structures and caused $5.6 billion in damage, according to estimates at the time.

The Maui Police Department updated the confirmed death toll to 99 on Monday, Aug. 14, as Fox News Digital has reported.

"At this point everything is on lockdown," Craig wrote to FOX Business. "The tourism economy that supports us is coming to a screeching halt and of course I am extremely worried about our future and of course my future."

So far, Craig has received three cancellations from photography clients — and he said he's expecting many more in the coming weeks and months.

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While many wedding vendors have an "act of God" clause that protects businesses from having to issue refunds in cases of unanticipated natural disasters and other catastrophic events, Craig said he suspects he’ll have to return deposits to clients who can’t move forward with their wedding plans.

Under normal circumstances, Craig’s photography business has a non-refundable policy. Some exceptions are allowed, however, he told FOX Business.

Craig, who became a professional photographer in 1999, said businesses on Maui’s west side have suffered losses from the wildfires, including tour agencies that have lost offices and boats that couples liked to frequent.

"For those people who have lost loved ones and lost their houses and their livelihoods, they are the ones that are most impacted by this horror show," he wrote in an email. "I feel so incredibly bad for them and what they must be going through."

Authorities are still battling wildfires that have spread to other areas, which are all at different stages of containment, according to a civic alert issued by the County of Maui on Sunday.

The news alert stated that the Lahaina wildfire was contained by 85% and encompassed an estimated 2,170 acres.

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The wildfire in Kula, a Census-designated place near the western-facing slopes of Haleakalā volcano, which is also known as the upcountry, was contained by 60% with an impact on approximately 678 acres, according to county records.

Kihei, another Census-designated place on Maui’s south side, had a wildfire that was declared 100% contained (but not extinguished) — while the wildfires in the Puʻukoliʻi Reservoir and Kaanapali, a Census-designated place on Maui’s western shore, were completely extinguished, according to the civic alert.

"Since the fires, there has been a huge outpouring of support locally and nationwide, but this is going to take years to recover from," Craig wrote in his email to FOX Business.

Craig noted that The Maui Aids Foundation, a local health nonprofit, is working with the county to collect critical supplies for people who lost their homes.

The organization set up a Maui Fire Relief Wish List on Amazon, which includes over-the-counter medicine, hygiene products, fuel, batteries, non-perishable food, sleeping bags, clothes, baby care items and more.

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Wedding professionals on other parts of the island who haven’t been directly affected by the wildfires believe the industry’s future looks bleak.

Klaus Bandisch, owner of the Just Maui Weddings planning service in Wailea, a Census-designated placed on Maui’s south side, wrote that he thinks weddings and events will be put on a long pause in the areas where the wildfires are occurring.

"The infrastructure will be very bad for a long time," he wrote in an email to FOX Business.

Bandisch shared that he has 11 weddings scheduled throughout the remainder of August, but the wildfires could change that number in the coming days.

Marriage data published by the State of Hawaii’s Department of Health estimates that a total of 164,909 marriages have taken place in the Aloha State from December 2013 to June 2023. 

Maui is the second most popular Hawaiian island for marriages, with 50,506 marriages reportedly having taken place in the 115-month span, according to the preliminary government record. 

On average, the island hosts about 5,338 marriages per year.

It’s not immediately clear how many of those marriages resulted in a formal wedding ceremony and reception.

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HappyLaulea, a Honolulu-based wedding jewelry store, reports that Maui hosts about 4,659 weddings each year, according to the brand’s Hawaii Wedding Statistics webpage.

Maui and the rest of Hawaii are also destinations that couples choose for romantic getaways, including engagement celebrations, elopements, vow renewals, honeymoons, anniversaries and non-marital vacations.

The exact cause of the initial wildfire in Maui is not known, but the governor’s office has notified the public that it’s likely related to Hurricane Dora, which approached the state on Tuesday, Aug. 8, according to a statewide emergency proclamation.

Over 1,000 people are still unaccounted for, according to Maui Police Department estimates. 

The governor’s office announced that the federal government is offering locals assistance with small business administration and economic injury disaster loans. 

Additionally, the State of Hawaii is offering unemployment benefits to those who have lost work due to the wildfires. 

On a county level, six shelters are open with a cumulative occupancy that can house 1,101 people and essential supplies are being distributed at the Lahaina Gateway Center.

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Some 5,000 customers in Oluwalu, Lahaina, Kaanapali and Napili are living without power.

The population of Maui County is approximately 164,351, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2022, around 2.9 million visitors spent about $5.69 billion in Maui, according to a report published by Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

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