Hōlualoa Residents Recount Historic Theater Fire That Charred Town’s Footprint

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Firefighters douse the Hōlualoa Theatre on Sunday. PC: Mandi Post

Neighbors of the historic Hōlualoa Theatre expressed shock, sorrow and disbelief on Monday, Aug. 22, a day after the iconic locale was devastated during a Sunday morning fire.

People shared memories they had associated with the building, where mostly charred remains now laid in piles, and said the loss will impact the tight-knit, artistic and farming community indefinitely.

Mandi Post, owner of the shop Kona Treehouse a few feet south of the theater who grew up in the area, said it was difficult to describe how much the theater meant to the community. Her daughters danced hula in the building, the kumu of 13 years lost sentimental keepsakes in the fire, and the footprint of the town feels forever changed.

“It’s really devastating, I’m really sad,” Post said on Monday. “There isn’t much up here in this town, it was just one of these landmarks.”

Firefighters responded just before 8 a.m. Sunday to the structure fire at 76-5925 Māmalahoa Highway. Home of the 1929 Hōlualoa Theatre building, the structure also housed the Hōlualoa Artist Colony and Mi Taqueria Potosina.


Upon arrival, the 2,376-square-foot commercial building owned by Merner Land Co., was fully involved in fire. Personnel with several units from the Hawai’i Fire Department responded to help protect surrounding buildings from fire exposure and extinguish the blaze.

No injuries were reported and no other structures were damaged. The highway was closed for a couple of hours and the fire was put out by 9:40 a.m.

Matthew Merner, vice president, of Merner Land Co., emailed Big Island Now on Monday afternoon that the fire was a huge loss for the family and the community.

“Our family is devastated by the loss of the Hōlualoa theater building,” he wrote. “As long-time members of the community, we appreciated its cultural value to the town and the surrounding area. Since acquiring it earlier this year, we had been working diligently to improve building safety and halt further deterioration.

“We are thankful our recent vegetation clearing of the property allowed the HFD to quickly access the building and defend our neighbors’ structures. We want to express our thanks to multiple Holualoa residents who quickly reported the fire and attempted to halt its progress with extinguishers.


“The building remnants are currently structurally dangerous and we ask everyone’s kokua in staying away while we clean up. Investigation of the fire’s cause is ongoing with HFD staff and we have no further information to share on it.”

The neighbor on the Hōlualoa Hongwanji Temple property immediately south of the theater was still in shock on Monday morning.

The remains of the building stand on Monday morning. Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Mimi Bergstrom was also grateful to be alive, she said, as the fire very easily could have reached across the property line and ignited the gas cans Bergstrom and her boyfriend, Jules Dudoit, keep in their work station on that side of the house.

The distance between their two structures is only 12 feet, she said.

“I had no idea it was going to take off that fast,” Bergstrom said. “It was insane. If it wasn’t for my boyfriend…”


Bergstrom credits her boyfriend for saving her life. She said she was fighting a cold and had taken cold medicine and wasn’t alert at all when Dudoit screamed at her about the fire and that she needed to get out of the house.

“I thought, ‘I only saw smoke, no big deal,'” an emotional Bergstrom recounted on Monday. “No. It instantly started shooting flames out and just took off, so fast. It was insane how fast it took off.”

Dudoit then grabbed a garden hose to keep the flames from approaching their property and told Bergstrom to move the gas cans and move her car. Shortly later, collapsed material crashed down where her car just moments before had been parked.

A few serendipitous events transpired even before that which left Bergstrom in disbelief. Dubois got a very early morning call Sunday morning from a loved one that got him out of bed in the first place that the surf was good that morning and he should prepare to head out. The other was the couple finally trimmed down the overgrown hedges between the two properties, which could have ignited had they been around. Their absence left a clear path for firefighters to run their hoses as they fought the fire from exactly that spot, Bergstrom said.

“It could have been so much worse,” Bergstrom said, expressing her gratitude to the firefighters who responded.

No one was at the building during the blaze and there were no injuries reported, the fire department reported.

HFD Chief Kazuo Todd said the cause of the fire appears to be electrical in nature. The fire started in the electrical panel area, according to witness statements and the early investigation, and the building also had electrical issues in the past.

He added that the island recently lost the Pāhoa theater to a fire and that while the historic buildings are iconic and sentimental, the fact that they are huge wooden structures with old infrastructure and termite damage makes them susceptible to fast-spreading fire damage, unfortunately.

Once ignited, the components of those types of buildings make them especially flammable and difficult to save.

“It’s really impossible to slow with that type of structure,” he said.

Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe account has been established to help the halau that used to call the theatre home.

“Hula Maunalei has not only lost their home base, they have lost all of their hula implements, instruments, hula skirts, costumes and accessories. We humbly ask for donations to recoup the items which were lost in the fire and to help pay for a new place for the girls to practice their hula,” it reads.

One has also been set up to help the restaurant.

The light blue front of the building, with the Hōlualoa Theatre sign, was the only recognizable piece still standing on Monday – a charred reminder of what used to be such a big piece of the town’s charming footprint.

“I just really hope they recreate it,” Post 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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