‘Top Chef’ Alum Lee Anne Wong Says Maui Fire Was Just ‘Waiting to Happen: ‘We Will Recover’ But ‘It’s Gonna Take Time’ (Video)

Wong, a Hawaii resident, operates the popular Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu

“Top Chef” alum Lee Ann Wong has lived in Hawaii since 2013, where she runs her popular Honolulu restaurant Koko Head Cafe and also serves as executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines. And on Thursday she called into NewsNation to give some on-the-ground perspective on the horrifying fires that are ripping through the island of Maui.

The fires were caused by several factors: climate change, which has led to increasingly dry summers in Hawaii that increase fire risk; the proliferation of non-native fauna; and an unfortunate combination of powerful winds from a nearby hurricane and what scientists call a “flash drought” — a rapid-onset drought similar to a flash flood.

The fires have devastated the island of Maui and all but destroyed the town of Lahaina. There are also wildfires on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu that were quickly contained. 53 people have been confirmed killed by the Maui fire, and more deaths are likely.

Wong told NewsNation that the situation is such in Hawaii that “there’s no way to be prepared,” referring to Lahaina as “a matchbox waiting to happen.

“You never expected and I think that’s it,” she said, “there are wildfires all over Maui throughout the year, brush fires, and that’s, you know, that’s obviously a nod to global warming and drought. But it’s, again, like this fire moved so fast and like I have a suit like thankfully, it’s raining up country right now. So hopefully that’ll give some relief to our first responders and help put out the fires that are burning up country.

“But, she continued, “we have our bags packed, you know what I mean? Like I am I am squarely paranoid right now about like these fires and it’s, it’s just, there’s no way to be prepared, you know, and unfortunately, old Lahaina was just a matchbox waiting to happen. I mean, those are all old buildings. A lot of them hadn’t been, you know, spec’ed out for modern times, or fire prevention. I mean, they’re all made of wood.”

Watch the clip above now.

Wong said she’s also concerned because the hospitality and tourism indusries in Hawaii were already “hanging by a thread” before the fires, due to continuing post-COVID slowness, and rising prices she says are in part because wealthy developers are buying up property.

“We are hanging by a thread honestly, before all this, the ramifications of it is just staggering. Because, you know, post COVID, we’ve been struggling with the tourism industry, especially on Maui has been struggling from rising costs. And, you know, basically, when the pandemic happened, the real estate people came in, bought up real estate and drove up the prices, so like locals can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said.

“So we lost 14,000 hospitality workers after COVID. And you know, the economics, I just did an article on it in Food and Wine, but like the economics of inflation and trying to keep staff or hire staff and pay them enough so they can afford to live and work here has just been crazy and just incredibly, incredibly difficult time after COVID,” Wong continued.

“Lahaina being the main tourist town in Maui, this is going to be absolutely devastating for Maui County. I can’t, I can’t even like when, you know, the, everybody on the mainland who’s experienced wild wildfires in Northern California community, like I have no words, you know, because I don’t know how”

But Wong is optimistic that Hawaii will bounce back. “We will recover. But it’s just, it’s gonna take time and it’s gonna take a lot of effort from the people here on the ground and the people who want to reinvest and rebuild in Maui. You know, so it’s hard to say right now, I think our focus is just on figuring out how much damage was done,” she said.

Watch that clip below now:

During the interview, Wong also advised people who want to donate to be wary of “scam charities,” and recommended MauiUnitedway.org and the Hawaii Red Cross as reliable organizations.

Wong first appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef” during the show’s San Francisco season in 2006. She returned for “Top Chef: Colorado” in 2017 and “Top Chef: All Stars LA” in 2019, She also regularly appeared on Cooking Channel’s “Unique Eats.”