A Monday morning fire destroyed a controversial three-story home in Kalapana Seaview Estates known as the “House of Cards” and police referred to the fire as “suspicious.”
The fire started at about 9:15 a.m. and the structure burned down before firefighters could arrive, said Capt. Robert Perreira of the Hawaii Fire Department’s Prevention Bureau. The nearest fire station is in Pahoa, about 15 miles away.
“It went up like a house of cards,” said Jack Hash, a neighbor who has referred to the ramshackle home at 12-7037 Akanikolea St. as an “eyesore.”
“I was in a back room and I heard popping sounds. I came out and this thing was raging across the street from me,” he said. “The Fire Department was called. I called them but I think somebody called them before I did. They came out. It took them awhile to come out, but miraculously, nobody was injured. The neighbor built a house right next door and that didn’t go and the grass didn’t go up or anything. So it could have been a lot worse.”
Another neighbor, Dennis Donnelly, said he was watching TV when he heard “a bunch of popping.”
“I came out and I saw the top floor was totally engulfed in flames,” he said. “So I went in, grabbed my camera and took a couple of pictures and came back out to check my lawn out here. It got to within five feet or so of my property line, just a little patch. It burnt, boom, that fast.”
Hash referred to the fire as “divine intervention,” but fire inspectors and police are investigating the blaze as possible arson. Perreira went over the scene Monday with Ka‘imi, the department’s arson dog.
“We had a complaint about the structure creating a fire hazard and I was scheduled to come down here to investigate that complaint (today),” said Perreira, who added that the fire made the complaint moot.
Collins, a Vietnam veteran and retired businessman, didn’t live in the home, but neighbors said a young man from Alaska had been staying there. No one was home at the time.
Collins has been at odds with the county since 1997 when he was first cited for starting construction of the unpermitted structure. By then, he’d submitted a permit application for a 272-square-foot storage shed, but not a house.
Collins continued to add rooms and floors over the years without county approval and the county started fining him $50 a day in November 2011. The fine has gone unpaid and has continued to accrue daily, Deputy Corporation Counsel Jennifer Ng said Monday. Court records show that as of July 31, 2012, the fine had reached $12,450. An unofficial estimate of the fine as of Monday was $44,900.
“Our concerns are more about the safety of the community and to Mr. Collins than about the imposition of fines, but that is something that is allowed under the law,” Ng said.
The county sued Collins in 2012 and obtained an injunction ordering Collins to stop building on the property. The case is still active but county lawyers are not sure how it will play out now.
“We’re not in the business of beating a dead horse,” said Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Udovic.
Collins has also battled with neighbors — some, including Hash, in court — who were upset the county failed to make Collins stop construction earlier.
A building permit application for the house was filed in August.
“Mr. Collins was in the process of trying to get a permit approved but that was pending,” Ng said. “As of last month, it was returned for him to make a few corrections, and that was the last update we’ve had as far as any building permits.”
The Tribune-Herald was unable to obtain a contact number for Collins.
Asked if he considered the house an eyesore, Donnelly said, “In all honesty, I bought this property and that was already there, so it didn’t bother me that much.”
Another neighbor, Ernest Jackson, called the fire “unfortunate” and said neighbors’ opinions of the house don’t matter.
“It was someone’s home,” he said. “If my or anyone else’s opinion of what anyone else’s home is gives them cause for celebration about it burning down, I’m in the wrong neighborhood.
“I think whatever he (Collins) was doing here, it was what he wanted to do. And if the county didn’t care enough to come down and make him tear it down or they didn’t pursue the right way of bringing it down, then they had the right to be here.”
Although the “House of Cards” is no more, Hash hopes county officials learn from the 17-year saga surrounding the property.
“It’s too bad the county didn’t do something about it 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “That thing went up so fast … it’s lucky that nobody got hurt.”
Fire officials estimated the loss at $30,000.
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.