Hawaii’s first certified arson dog dies at 13

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald In this May 12, 2014 file photo, Acting Fire Chief Robert Perreira, then a fire inspector, and Kaimi, the arson dog, sift through the rubble of a house fire at Kalapana Seaview Estates.

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald In this Oct. 5, 2013 file photo Acting Fire Chief Robert Perreira, then a fire inspector, poses with Kaimi, the arson dog, at a Fire Prevention Week event on the Hilo Bayfront.

  • Hawaii Fire Department photo Acting Fire Chief Robert Perreira and Kaimi attend the unveiling of the National Fire Dog Monument in Washington, D.C., in 2014.

Of all the dogs on the Big Island, it’s likely none were better known than Kaimi.

The state’s first certified arson dog, Kaimi retired Dec. 31, 2019, and died Saturday at the home of his handler, Acting Fire Chief Robert Perreira. He was 13.

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“It’s a hard pill to swallow, losing my buddy, my partner. He stayed home the last year because he was retired, and when I leave home, he’s making noise, because he knows I’m leaving,” Perreira said Thursday.

Kaimi, a Labrador/golden retriever mix, was rescued from a Southern California shelter for an arson K9 training program funded by State Farm at Maine Specialty Dogs. As a partner to Perreira, then a fire inspector, the canine was certified May 8, 2008, a week after his first birthday.

“We had a great career; we traveled all around,” Perreira said. “We worked on almost every island — Maui, Kauai, Honolulu. We didn’t go to Molokai or Lanai, but we helped around the state, and with hundreds of fires around our island.”

For many years, Kaimi was the only arson K9 in the state. He worked the high-profile Marco Polo condominium fire in Honolulu that killed four people and injured 13 others on July 14, 2017.

“That’s probably the biggest incident that he worked on,” Perreira said.

Honolulu now has its own arson dog, Kukui. And, as Kaimi did, Kukui works to detect intentionally lit fires statewide.

Another tragedy that required Kaimi’s services was the Holualoa fire on Jan. 29, 2015, that claimed the lives of brothers Dexen Matsuyama, 11, and Kaeden Matsuyama, 6.

“We worked a lot of fatal fires,” Perreira said. “A lot of times, it was just to rule out any foul play. And that was one of the reasons why we got him. We noticed that a high percentage of our fires were coming back undetermined, but we knew, just by hunch, that these fires were actually being set. About 75 to 80% of our fires were undetermined, but with him in the mix, it brought that down to under 50%.”

Perreira said the initial investment made by the insurance giant to train each dog is about $25,000, and about 10 are certified yearly. Dogs undergo three to five months of intensive training before being paired with handlers.

“The five-week course they gave us to meet our dogs and to get trained was really to train us, to make sure that the handler and the dog could get along, to make sure there was a match,” he said. “If there’s no match there, the dog’s not going to work for you. You’ve got to have a bond.

“The first night, he slept in my bed. We were bonded. He was that kind of dog.”

Not surprisingly, Kaimi turned out to be a great family member, as well.

“He protected our family. He loved to bark; he loved to let us know when there was somebody around,” Perreira said. “Then, when my daughter and I would play — wrestle or whatnot — he would bark at me. He thought I was hurting her.

“My daughter thought it was funny. My dog that was supposed to be my partner is actually protecting her.”

Kaimi loved children and became a hit with them — as well as a goodwill ambassador for the Hawaii Fire Department — via public appearances at events such as Fire Prevention Week and making the rounds of the island’s elementary schools.

“We visited so many schools,” Perreira said. “Even when we were on the mainland being recertified, we visited my nephew’s school in Nevada. We reached so many people that way with messages such as ‘don’t play with fire.’ We even went to the public library in Hilo, reading books to kids. He loved it.”

Arson dogs must be recertified on a yearly basis, and Kaimi and Perreira racked up a lot of frequent flier miles to mainland states, including Texas, Colorado and Florida, to do so. They were also present in Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of the National Fire Dog Monument in 2014.

“That was a big thing for us, seeing that happen,” Perreira said.

The department doesn’t have an arson dog at present, but Perreira is hopeful there will be another one for another handler in the relatively near future.

“It’s such a commitment,” he said. “And it was such a commitment for me — giving up my birthday, my wife’s birthday, Fourth of July, Christmas Day, and going to fires. And then training, nights, weekends. And obviously, I was compensated for those times, but it’s time away from your family, time away from your normal life.”

Perreira said Kaimi’s loss is felt by his family, the department and the other arson K9 teams they met in their travels.

“I’ve had other dogs before, and you’ve got to let ’em go,” he said. “Someday, it’s going to happen. It happened quickly. I just didn’t think it would be … .”

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Perreira’s voice trailed off, and it was apparent the emotional bond he shared with Kaimi since their first meeting is still very much alive.

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

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