Firefighters: Squatters appear to have started blaze at abandoned Hilo hotel
HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - A large blaze that broke out Friday at the shuttered Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel appears to have been started by squatters, authorities said.
Hawaii Island police have opened an arson investigation in the wake of the early-morning fire. Officials said the fire possibly broke out because someone had been tampering with an electrical junction box.
Fire crews responded to the hotel about 1:40 a.m.
Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said the four-story abandoned building was home to a number of squatters. No injuries were reported, and the damage from the blaze was estimated at $2 million.
The former hotel and several other Banyan Drive properties sit on state land. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said it has been seeking to demolish the old hotel and redevelop it.
“This effort is currently on hold due to lack of funds for demolition as well as non-DLNR related litigation,” a DLNR spokesperson said.
He also said that a security contract for the property expired in December and was not extended. “DLNR continues to explore cost-effective options for further security the property,” he said.
Following the blaze Friday, three people were arrested in the area for criminal trespass, the state said. One of the suspects was arrested on drug charges.
A number of guests from one of the wings at the nearby Naniloa Hotel evacuated during the blaze as a precaution. No damage was reported at the Naniloa Hotel.
Matthew Tanigawa, a guest at the Naniloa, woke up to glass breaking. When he peered out his room’s window, he saw flames pouring out of the abandoned hotel next door.
“I got my stuff ready just in case,” he said.
Jaerick Medeiros-Garcia is a valet at the Naniloa and said he started smelling smoke about 1:15 a.m. but couldn’t locate the source.
Minutes later, he saw flames shooting from the abandoned hotel.
“I called 911 and the thing was spreading so fast by the time they got here,” he said.
He added that in recent weeks, the property had been home to a growing number of squatters.
“In the last three weeks, I saw a lot of movement (in the hotel),” he said, referring to the squatters. “People walking on the rooftop. People scaling the balcony to the top floor.”
This story will be updated.
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