Fire burns down two homes and damages four

Kristie Leonguerrero sits on a fire hose and comforts her mother’s dog Bruno as she watches Maui firefighters douse hot spots Wednesday afternoon in Kihei. Her dog Tucker is in the background. Leonguerrero’s mother’s Kawailani Circle home was damaged in a fast-moving brush fire that destroyed two houses and scorched four others. According to an eyewitness, the fire may have been caused by kids playing with fireworks. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

A fire possibly caused by fireworks on a hot and windy Fourth of July burned down two homes and damaged four Wednesday afternoon, according to fire officials and eyewitnesses in the Kihei neighborhood.

Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said that firefighters responded to a fast-moving brush fire behind the homes on Kawailani Circle at 3:59 p.m. Wednesday. En route, firefighters learned that the houses had caught fire. The blaze destroyed two homes and damaged four before firefighters were able to bring the fire under control. Five engines, one ladder crew, two rescue crews, two tankers and one battalion chief responded.

Late Wednesday afternoon, evacuated residents watched as firefighters doused the damaged structures.

Tammy King, whose home sustained some smoke damage but was overall intact, had just moved into the neighborhood over the weekend. She said her husband returned from dropping off their son at work at around 4:30 p.m.

“He came back and banged on the door and I came outside,” King said. “Two houses over from us were completely engulfed. At the back end was high flames. All the brushes and shrubs behind the houses was completely engulfed.”

Residents stand in the Kihei right of way where the fire started as Maui firefighters mop up Wednesday. All five houses in the photo were damaged by the fire that raged down a line of bush and dry grass.The right of way is planned to be developed someday into a leg of the Kihei north-south collector road — the gated-off dirt road starts where Liloa Drive ends. The fire was close to Liloa’s dead end.

King said the houses in the neighborhood are about 15 feet apart, and that winds carried the fire swiftly to the next house. Police quickly evacuated the neighborhood.

“It spread to the third house in less than 10 minutes,” she said. “It was really heavy smoke.”

The fire singed the corner of King’s roof, but the white plastic fence surrounding her home managed to keep the fire at bay.

“They said that’s the only thing that saved it from coming into my house,” King said. “It took so long for that fence to melt that they were able to control it and wet everything down.”

King’s home sustained mostly smoke damage, and she said a couple of back corner windows blew out, “probably because of the heat.” At around 6 p.m., King said the flames were gone but there was still plenty of smoke, and firefighters were working to keep the structures doused. Two homes “were completely gutted,” she said.

Firefighters hose down one of the homes that was destroyed Wednesday afternoon.

Resident Sheila Cheetham lives right next to one of the homes that was partially burned. She said it was around 4 p.m. when she and her husband noticed the fire.

“We were sitting on the back lanai away from these houses,” Cheetham said. “We smelled smoke, and we thought it was still from the grass fires from yesterday. . . . We came around to the front of the house and all this black smoke was coming up from our neighbors (homes).

“My husband grabbed the hoses, and we started hosing our roof and tried hosing our neighbors’,” Cheetham said.

Police came and told them to evacuate, so Cheetham grabbed their dog and headed up the street.

“The smoke was so thick and heavy and black,” she said. “It was frightening.”

Stunned residents survey the scene Wednesday afternoon. Tammy King (center) had just moved into one of the houses that was damaged.

Cheetham said the woman who owned the house next door that was partially burned was just getting ready to move off island. Her tenants, a family of four, had just moved in, and she was staying with Cheetham.

“She didn’t even get out of town till I had to call her and tell her her house was on fire,” Cheetham said.

A woman who lived in one of the houses that burned down had planned to stop at the grocery store on her way home from work, Cheetham said. She came back just in time.

“She said she heard fireworks and crazy noise,” Cheetham said. “She just managed to get out of the house with her dog. She’s just thankful she didn’t go to the store first.”

Yatsushiro said the cause of the fire “is believed to be accidental, caused by fireworks.” A witness reportedly heard children playing with fireworks behind the homes just before the fire began. Firework remnants were also found in the area. Yatsushiro said the total damages for all the homes exceed $1 million, though damages were still being tallied Wednesday evening. One firefighter was injured and taken to the hospital for treatment.

The American Red Cross was assisting residents of the affected homes, Yatsushiro added. The Maui Emergency Management Agency had also set up a shelter at the Kihei Community Center.

The county Department of Fire and Public Safety does not support or endorse the use of fireworks, Yatsushiro said. However, fireworks, if used, should be under the supervision of a responsible adult and must comply with all laws. To view Hawaii laws on fireworks, visit capitol.hawaii.gov/hrscurrent/Vol03_Ch0121-0200D/HRS0132D/HRS_0132D-0001.htm and click “next.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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