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‘This is my Entire Existence’ : Witnesses Recount Kailua-Kona House Fire

By Tom Hasslinger
January 22, 2022, 2:29 PM HST
* Updated January 22, 3:07 PM
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Charles Robbins spent Saturday rummaging through the charred rubble of his old house, looking for his cellphone and his cat.

“She’s got a black back, and she’s got a really bright, reflecting, bright yellow collar that’s super reflective,” Robbins told his neighbor as he stood on black mounts of what used to be where he lived on Royal Poinciana Drive in Kailua-Kona. “If you see the black cat with the white feet and the white tummy and the white face … guarantee that’s her.”

Robbins home burned to the ground Friday afternoon. The home was divided into several different units, where around seven people lived, and was destroyed in the blaze that erupted in the family neighborhood shortly before 3 p.m. Jan. 21. Robbins said he had just come home from a surf lesson when he rinsed down his gear, walked into the back lanai, and saw inside the home that his room aflame.

“That’s exactly what I found,” he said. “I came home and found the whole world burning.”

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Robbins said he had time to grab some of his surf gear before he ran out. He pushed his motorcycle across the street to his neighbor’s yard and watched the structure disappear beneath the smoke and flames.

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The cause of the fire is under investigation. The Hawaiʻi Fire Department reported that all residents evacuated the home and the fire was extinguished by 4 p.m. No injuries were reported but the loss was estimated at $400,000.

“This is my entire existence,” Robbins said Saturday, standing on the wreckage wearing rubber boots and thick gloves. “This is everything I ever owned.”

The housefire was one of three fires in a 24-hour span around Kailua-Kona. Also on Friday, a structure fire destroyed a home in Kealakekua and an early morning fire was reported in Keauhou on Saturday. The Fire Department said details on the latter fire would be issued later today. No injuries were reported in the Kealakekua blaze, either.

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Red Cross disaster volunteers are meeting with affected residents of all the fires to ensure their immediate emergency needs for food, shelter and clothing are met, the organization stated in press release. Caseworkers will continue to follow up with anyone affected in the coming weeks to provide referrals, guidance or additional assistance as needed to help with the recovery process.

Neighbors of Robbins on Royal Poinciana said that the fire engulfed the home in a matter of seconds.

Loreen Noelani Cobb, who lives with her family directly adjacent the home, said she was laying down for an afternoon nap when she noticed a smell of smoke and hear neighborhood kids screaming, “Fire, fire, fire!”

She looked out the window.

“I’m like, holy smoke, the fire is already higher than the roof,” she said.

She helped her older mother out of their home, and tried calling 911. Police arrived quickly, although it took longer for the fire engines to arrive. The heat from the fire was unimaginable, she said, as though everything was going to explode. The neighborhood watched the fire from the street.

“It was too much going on,” Cobb said. “I was in shock.” 

Robbins, who lived in the home five years, said he would spend the next days rummaging for his cellphone and his cat, who Robbins found when she showed up on his doorstep one day and ended up befriended him. His friend, Rob Hemsher, is setting up a GoFundMe account to help the victims.

“I’m just internalizing a whole lot of, ‘Damn,'” Robbins said.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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