Big Island family leaning on community support after fire destroys home, kills 3 pets
January 8, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Mahina Autrata was having one of the best evenings of her life, celebrating her 10th birthday on Dec. 30 with her family at Kaleo’s Bar & Grill in Pāhoa. She ordered her favorite — chicken katsu — and a cake arrived at the table while everyone in the restaurant sang “Happy Birthday.”
The family of six was still glowing from the celebration when they got to their vehicle in the restaurant’s parking lot. Then the phone rang.
A next-door neighbor frantically was telling Mahina’s father, Erhard Autrata Jr., that their family home on Hanalē Drive in ʻĀinaloa was on fire.
“My heart dropped,” Erhard Autrata said Wednesday. “We gotta go, we gotta go, right. So we rushed home.”
Inside the four-bedroom home they had built themselves — and where he and his wife Veronica had raised their five children and lived for more than 15 years — was their beloved pets: five dogs and three cats.
Twelve-year-old Isabella Autrata started crying but said she tried to keep calm so her parents could hear what the neighbor was saying. Mahina gave her a hug.
“Knowing that our house was on fire, I was like is this happening or is this a dream?” Isabella said Wednesday. “It was just really scary and stuff.”
During the 6-mile drive home, the Autratas prayed as they found themselves driving behind an unintentional escort of Hawai‘i Fire Department units from the Pāhoa Fire Station that were deployed to battle the blaze.
As they got closer, they could see smoke. And when they arrived at about 6:30 p.m., firefighters and the family found the single-story home partially involved in flames. Big Island police also were at the scene. Erhard Autrata, a decorated 15-year veteran of the Hawai‘i Police Department who now works as a Hāmākua patrol officer, and his family knew many of the first responders.
“I could see from the roof and there was fire on top. I knew it wasn’t good,” Veronica Autrata said. Her husband said it was surreal, “like a nightmare.”
Isabella said: “Whenever I saw someone else crying, it would make me cry.”
Five days after the fire, the family still was processing what happened as they sat around a table on the backyard patio of their unlivable home. The smell of smoke was still thick and pungent.
Just feet away were the graves of the three pets who didn’t survive: Blondie, a 12-year-old Chihuahua-mix rescue who Mahina and Isabella grew up with — and two elderly mixed breeds, Handsome and Blaze, who the family had been fostering.
Firefighters found the remains of the dogs, who had succumbed to smoke inhalation, after the fire was put out. They were buried the same night.
“They were family. They were like my kids,” Veronica Autrata said.
“We can never replace them,” Erhard Autrata said. “That’s hard. … That’s one of the hardest parts, losing them.”
Thankfully, the family’s two German shepherds and their cats survived.
Mahina was speechless Wednesday, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her father, sitting in a chair next to her, rubbed her shoulders and back to console her while she cried.
“We built this house ourselves. Most of the work we did ourselves. So it hurts,” Veronica Autrata said. “We didn’t just buy the house and move in. We put the effort into it, putting it together, building it.”
The fire was extinguished by 8 p.m., but it had destroyed more than half of the 1,600-square-foot house, including Mahina and Isabella’s bedroom, the bedroom of the Autratas’ 17-year-old daughter Tiare, a bathroom, and dining room. The living room also was destroyed, but the Christmas tree and a 3-foot tall Santa survived.
The kitchen was heavily damaged. Half of the solar panels on the home’s roof are gone, some completely melted by the flames, and there’s a hole in the roof.
The laundry room, Erhard and Veronica’s bedroom and their 15-year-old daughter Maile’s bedroom are salvageable, although they suffered considerable smoke and water damage.
Many of the family’s possessions, some irreplaceable, were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, including family photo albums and Mahina’s birthday presents.
Erhard Autrata hoped his police uniform that was in the washing machine during the fire was salvageable. He had to work the next day after a week off due to the fire. He found his work boots outside on the patio, undamaged.
With the house unlivable, the family is staying a few streets away in ʻĀinaloa at the home of their eldest daughter Yasmine Tubbs-Ishibashi, her husband and their three children. It’s definitely a full house.
They also had to put their online family business, Vero Pearls, on hiatus after the fire.
An insurance adjuster was scheduled to come by the end of last week.
As a police officer, Erhard Autrata has worked at many fires and seen the devastation for those involved.
“Being that it’s your own home fire, I think that’s a hard thing,” Erhard Autrata said. “We never would think in a million years our house would end up like this.”
The family has been uplifted by the Big Island community and beyond, with people offering to help. Erhard Autrata’s phone has been ringing off the hook with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers wanting to help. Police Department leadership and chaplains and Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth also have reached out to the family.
The night of the fire, they were brought bags of items with toothpaste, toothbrushes and other necessities. Some came while the fire was still burning to lend a hand and offer comfort.
Erhard Autrata said God has always blessed his family so he and Veronica can provide for their children, so they always try to help others in their time of need. The support that has poured in since the fire has been humbling for the police officer and his family who are used to being the ones to help instead of needing it.
“The outpouring of love is just amazing,” he said. “We’ve definitely felt the aloha spirit.”
Their extended family of brothers and sisters in blue have supported them by collecting donations of items they need, including clothes, toiletries and other necessities. Some people donated birthday presents for Mahina. Her father said she’s probably gotten three times as many gifts as she lost.
Officers with the Police Department’s Puna Patrol also started a GoFundMe fundraiser for the family. As of Saturday afternoon, nearly $32,000 had been raised. Erhard Autrata became emotional Wednesday while talking about his fellow officers and the sacrifices some of them have made, picking up shifts while he was off work for emergency leave and offering other forms of support for the family.
“We are doing this because the Autrata ‘ohana are a loving, wonderful group of people and they are in need of help,” said Hawai‘i Police Department Officer Adam Hanes last week. “If you only met these folks one time, you would walk away glad that they are in your life; simply wonderful and loving people who try to brighten the world in their own way.”
Several churches also have reached out to help. The Autratas’ church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Pāhoa Ward in Orchidland, has stepped up with Veronica Autrata’s best friend, Chassidy Del Toro, leading the charge.
Church members are offering whatever the family needs. Del Toro said members have donated food, clothing and other items, including gift cards to help the Autratas purchase necessities as needed. They also planned a meal train, where families sign up to provide the Autratas with a meal each night, and they’ve provided a ton of spiritual support.
“Our husbands work together and our family and their family attend the same church, so we’re really close,” Del Toro said about her family and the Autratas.
The first day she attended the church, Erhard Autrata took her under his wing and introduced her to everyone, including Veronica. From there, the families would go to dinner at each other’s homes and eventually became very close, with husbands hanging out together and wives doing the same. Their keiki also have grown up together.
“We kind of just fit,” Del Toro said. “They’re just really good people. We love them. That’s our family.”
Erhard Autrata said: “We just want to thank everyone. We don’t want to mention names because we don’t want to forget people. We’re so grateful for the outpouring of support from everyone on our island, across the state and across the nation for just thinking of us and keeping us in their prayers. We love everyone.”
While they could find a new house and move, the Autratas have no such plans.
“I told one of my friends not too long ago, the only thing in this life that we cannot fix is death,” Veronica Autrata said. “Everything else, you can fix it. Yeah, our puppies are gone, but we’re all alive. We’re healthy. None of us inhaled smoke, have health issues, none of that, so we can definitely rebuild.”
They intend to rebuild in the same place they raised their family and made unbreakable connections in a community they love. It’s their home. Theyʻre not leaving.
“We’re a family of faith,” Erhard Autrata said. “I always know that we’ll be OK.”