Despite damage at future site, Imua project to ‘move forward’

KAHULUI – A two-story building that was to be renovated for the nonprofit Imua Family Services burned in an early-morning fire Monday in Kahului, causing an estimated $1 million in damage, officials said.

The fire at the 10,800-square-foot metal building at 161 S. Wakea Ave. was reported at 6:21 a.m., said Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga. He said fire crews arrived on scene to find fire visible on the south end of the 180-foot-long, 30-foot-wide building.

“It was just black smoke at first,” said Jessica Yamamoto, a waitress at nearby Sheik’s restaurant, who noticed the fire at about 6:15 a.m. “And then, eventually, around 6:30, that’s when the flames came out. It came higher where we could see.”

The restaurant on Wakea Avenue wasn’t affected, she said.

But another nearby business, A&E Laundry on Wakea Avenue, was closed until shortly after the fire was brought under control at 9:37 a.m., Mainaga said. The fire was extinguished at 11:52 a.m.

Mainaga said fire damaged half of the building on the south side, with the other half of the building sustaining heavy smoke damage.

The cause hadn’t been determined Monday, with fire investigators and police arson investigators still at the scene late Monday afternoon, Mainaga said.

He said Wailuku, Kahului and Paia engine companies responded, along with Kahului rescue and hazmat crews.

Flames were visible over a fence separating the building from the parking lot of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.

The burned building was vacant. It is part of the Maui campus of Easter Seals Hawaii, which has plans to lease the building to Imua for its programs for children with disabilities from birth to age 3.

As firefighters were mopping up Monday morning, Roxann Kehus, Maui County manager of Easter Seals, said she was glad the fire happened before solar panels were installed and the renovation work began.

“I’m really grateful, if it had to happen, it happened before that was done,” she said.

Despite the fire, she said, the project and partnership with Imua would move forward.

“We’re in shock a little bit,” Dean Wong, executive director of Imua Family Services, said Monday morning after stopping at the fire scene. “The good news is we hadn’t started any of the building expenditures yet. It won’t impact our plans in any way.”

After securing county, grant and corporate funding, the organization is in the final stage of its capital fundraising campaign by seeking contributions from the Maui community, Wong said.

The agency expects to start construction on the $1.9 million project by the end of the year, Wong said. The new building will provide more space and allow for additional programs than Imua’s current location at the Cameron Center in Wailuku.

Wong said he didn’t think the fire would affect plans for the building. But depending on what’s determined to be the cause of the fire, it could require attention in the planning, Wong said.

The burned building, which originally was a dormitory for Maui Land & Pineapple Co. migrant workers, was built in 1991, according to Maui County property tax records. The building later was used to house company offices before being bought by Easter Seals.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at