Rebuilding the ohana: Waimea house destroyed in New Year’s Eve fire possibly linked to fireworks

  • One of their cats explores what remains of the house.

  • Sam, Pua and January say they are grateful for the outpouring of donations people have brought to their farm since the Jan. 1 fire that destroyed the main house.

  • January shows one of her grandmother’s books that she salvaged from the blaze. (Photos by LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • A carport tent serves as a makeshift kitchen on their property now.

  • For the time being, January and Sam are living in an RV on the farm and using a rented portable toilet.

  • Sam and January look at what remains of their home Friday and discuss priorities to accomplish that day in the cleanup. (Photos by LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — Just after midnight New Year’s Eve, January Herron-Whitehead and her husband, Sam, were house-sitting in Kohala Estates and watching fireworks along the coast.

Back at Po’oke’oke’o Farm, where they live and sell cage-free eggs and produce, their 900-square-foot house and deck in the Waimea Hawaiian Homeland community burned to the ground, along with two generators, a solar panel, several propane tanks and a water heater.

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“Our house was destroyed. Nothing was left inside,” January said. “We had a really good propane fridge, a propane stove, a propane water heater and a washing machine that ran on a generator. They’re all gone.”

Fifty chickens, 10 ducks, 10 sheep, five dogs, two cats, three turtles, a 300-pound pig and koi fish on the 5-acre farm survived. Their daughter, Pua, was asleep that night in an outbuilding on the back quarter of the property when she was awakened by loud fireworks nearby.

At midnight she got up and saw her parents’ house engulfed in flames and phoned her dad, after calling 911.

“Sam jumped up and said, ‘Fire!’ and hopped in the car to drive up the hill to our farm,” January remembered.

As Pua ran towards the house, she saw sheep running wildly. Their landscaper, who sometimes stays on the property, was there trying to use a hose on the house.

“There were flames coming out of all of the windows,” Pua said. “He pulled me back and right then the propane tanks exploded. That was scary. A little later we saw people coming up the driveway to make sure no one was in the house and then the fire trucks came.”

After the explosion, glass and other materials were scattered around where the house once stood.

Waimea Fire Captain David Soo was on duty New Year’s Eve and said he arrived on the scene around 12:15 a.m. with five trucks dispatched from Waikoloa, North Kohala and Honokaa and five firefighters.

“The house was fully engulfed,” Soo said. “Our first priority was protecting any other exposures on the farm and in the immediate area.”

The fire crew left around 4:30 a.m. The cause of the fire was ruled undetermined by the fire inspector early that morning, according to Soo.

Some suspect fireworks may have been the cause.

“There were fireworks going off nearby according to our landscaper,” January said. “The sounds were getting louder and louder he said, and then he heard crackling which was the fire at the house.”

“Given the timing of the fire was just after midnight, we suspect errant fireworks may have been the cause,” her other daughter, Emily Baker, said.

Still recovering, January and Sam are now living in an RV on the farm to be close to their animals, daughter and granddaughter.

“We purchased it a year and a half ago for my parents to stay in while visiting,” January said.

Two portable toilets have been rented temporarily.

“We’ve been showering some nights at Millie and John Kawamos’ house, and a really giving friend, Sarah McKay’s,” January said. “Her house is like an island oasis of peace each evening.”

Other friends have been helping to re-build necessities.

“Eric Johnsen and his son, Leif, from Honokaa spent two days here using brick to build what will be protection for an outdoor shower and a beautiful wooden grid to stand on,” she continued. “And somebody has donated a camp sized instant water heater that we will use when it gets a little warmer.”

The house will need to be rebuilt from the ground up, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars, January said. But they have no insurance to cover it.

Baker, who lives in San Francisco, started a GoFundMe page Jan. 4 to start raising money. Eighty-two people have contributed more than $13,000 so far, and of this $3,500 was donated anonymously.

“We don’t even know some of the people who have donated or who have come to the farm to help,” January said. ‘We’re humbled and grateful.”

The GoFundMe page has had 359 shares on Facebook to help spread the word. In addition, friends and neighbors have donated basic items such as clothing, pillows, blankets, kitchenware, cookware, tables, toiletries and shelves, now kept under a carport tent.

“Sam’s friends put it up,” January said. “We have a temporary kitchen outside that’s rainproof. Avocado trees give us a windbreak. Lots of the guys with big equipment have said they will be there for us when we’ve ready to get rid of all the waste.”

A meal train — a crowdsourcing platform that helps organize homemade meal giving for a friend in need — was also set up for the family.

“People are bringing dinner almost every night,” January said. “Last night one of Pua’s classmate’s mom brought salmon, rice and salad that could have fed 10 people. It’s so giving.”

They still have other basic needs: a 5-gallon water jug with a spigot, large clear storage bins, men’s size 33 pants, women’s size 10 pants with pockets, women’s size 10 Sloggers rain boots, a wet vacuum to clean fallen ash and materials out of their ponds and water hyacinth or lilies to put oxygen back in the water for the turtles and fish.

“Lumber fell from the roof into the pond and was still burning New Year’s Day. The fish were swimming around it. I thought they would all be cooked, but they were fine. Just the plants on top were cooked,” Sam said.

Building materials will be needed next, once the family decides when they can start rebuilding the house.

“It’s too soon to know when that will be,” January said.

Still, amid the rubble, the couple try to maintain a positive attitude.

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“I’ve just been amazed at the outpouring of support from everybody,” Sam said.

To donate: Go to www.gofundme.com/herronwhiteheadohana