Work gone in house fire, Hilo artist knows it could have been worse

  • Hilo artist Tomas Belsky stands Tuesday next to the remains of his former Kou Lane home and studio, destroyed in an Oct. 30 fire. (JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — A well-known Hilo artist and writer whose rented home and studio burned down in a fire on Oct. 30 described himself as “a lucky son of a gun.”

Tomas Belsky, 81, said he’d just finished a piece he’d been writing on a new computer about 10:15 that morning when “the electricity went off, just like that” at his Kou Lane home in Wainaku.

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“I jumped up from the bedroom, where I had the computer, and I went in the back room, and it was filled with smoke,” Belsky reflected on Tuesday. “I go into there, and I see flames shooting up to from downstairs. … I tried to put it out with a hose that I had downstairs. That was futile as hell.”

Belsky escaped with only the clothes he was wearing — a T-shirt with two pens attached, work shorts and a pair of sneakers.

“And that was it. My pocketbook with my ID, my keys to the car, everything was inside,” he said. “I was trying to go back in, like a damn fool, and some of the neighbors kind of grabbed me. I wasn’t going to go all the way in, but I thought, s—-, I can grab something.

“And they were right. When I got back out, the flames were licking up underneath where I thought I was going.”

Much of Belsky’s work went up in flames, including originals of many of the posters he painted over the years for the Hilo Community Players, and generational family photographs of Belsky’s life partner, Moanike‘ala Akaka, a Hawaiian advocate, activist and Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, who died at 72 of cancer in 2017.

“The place was put up in 1922, single wall, termites in a lot of places, so it was like a tinderbox,” Belsky said. “I had a lot of work and a lot of paintings in there, you know. Not a lot of oil or combustible materials, but some. Nothing really big. But I did have some of those plastic folders you put artwork. Those things went up in a puff of smoke.”

Friends of Belsky sifted through the rubble afterwards and salvaged some possessions.

“A lot of it was Moani’s memorabilia, a lot of her writing and my writing from the early ’70s when we first met. It was nice to save that,” he said.

Belsky, who shared in his partner’s social and political activism, was one of the 38 mostly kupuna, or elders, arrested and charged with obstruction July 17 for preventing construction vehicles and workers from scaling Maunakea to work on the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project. He has a bench trial scheduled for 1 p.m. Dec. 20 in Hilo District Court.

According to Belsky, the Hawaii Fire Department response to the tightly-packed cluster of houses on Kou Lane, a narrow footpath just makai of Puueo Street, was “magnificent.”

“They worked hard,” he said. “One of them had trouble breathing in the heat. But I thought they were magnificent.”

Belsky’s praise of the county’s firefighters was echoed by Peter Firth, a co-owner with Joanne Firth and Twainhart Hill of most of the Kou Lane structures.

Firth wrote in a letter to the Tribune-Herald that “fire professionals, on a very hot day and with limited access to our lane, worked in full turnout gear with hand tools only.”

“The fire crews were able to protect the close neighboring buildings and completely put out the intensely burning fire with loss of only one house where the fire started. All of this occurred in a matter of hours and without injury to anyone,” Firth wrote. “Given the circumstances, we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome, and our gratitude to the people who risk their lives for us can’t be overstated.”

Two homes adjacent to Belsky’s residence were damaged, with one unoccupied house sustaining “some serious damage” and being repaired, Belsky said.

Belsky, who is often at the Hilo Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays selling prints of his work and doing on-the-spot drawings for customers, has been living in a place provided by a friend since the fire.

His daughter, Hooululahui Erika Perry, has organized a GoFundMe.com page to get him settled into a new home and studio. As of Wednesday morning, almost $15,000 of a $25,000 goal had been raised.

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“I just want to thank the community, the outpouring of support, the aloha,” Belsky said. “I was pleasantly, pleasantly surprised. I’m lucky, and I acknowledge that. Someone up there loves me. And I thank that someone, that something, that spirit, that force, the good Lord.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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