Lawmakers probing the cause of last month’s deadly Maui wildfire did not get many answers during Thursday’s congressional hearing on the role the electrical grid played in the disaster.
Still, the president of Hawaiian Electric — Maui’s sole electricity provider — promised to gather and provide more details about exactly what happened on Aug. 8, including when the power stopped flowing through downed power lines in Lahaina and exactly when the decision was made to trigger a procedure designed to make sure that broken lines were not re-energized.
Shelee Kimura also said the utility doesn’t have the right or responsibility to clear dry brush or other vegetation on private property — even if it is in the right-of-way, directly underneath power lines — unless the plants or trees are tall enough to potentially contact the lines.
The fire in the historic town of Lahaina killed at least 97 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, mostly homes. It first erupted at 6:30 a.m. when strong winds appeared to cause a Hawaiian Electric power line to fall, igniting dry brush and grass near a large subdivision.
Aerial and satellite imagery reviewed by The Associated Press show the gully where the fire reignited later that afternoon has long been choked with plants and trash, which a severe summer drought turned into tinder-dry fuel for fires. Photos taken after the blaze show charred foliage in the utility’s right-of-way still more than 10 feet (three meters) high.
During the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, lawmakers questioned Kimura and other utility officials about how the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century began — and whether the electrical grid in Lahaina was safe and properly maintained.
There is still much to sort out about the fire, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, said at the hearing’s start. Among questions that need to be answered are how the fires spread and what efforts to reduce fire risk have been made in recent years.
“It is extremely important that we ... ask the hard questions,” he said.
Those testifying were Kimura, Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Chair Leodoloff Asuncion Jr. and Hawaii Chief Energy Officer Mark Glick.
Asked to address whether the electrical grid in Lahaina was safe and properly maintained, Kimura told the committee that 2,000 of the company’s wooden power poles had not been tested or treated for possible termites, rot or other problems since 2013. The other 29,000 poles on the island had been assessed under Hawaiian Electric’s “test and treat” program, she said, but the remaining 2,000 had not yet been done.
Kimura said she didn’t know exactly where those untested poles were located or if they were in the area of the Lahaina fire. But at least one pole near where the fire started was tested and treated in 2022, she said.
Many different factors like drought need to be taken into account when looking at the fire, she said, and a lot of people and organizations were involved.
“There’s a system here that was in play for all of these conditions to happen all at one time that resulted in the devastation in Lahaina,” she said.
Both Kimura and Asuncion addressed the possibility of burying power lines underground to reduce the risk of wildfires, especially in high-wind conditions. About 50% of the power lines in Hawaii are now underground, Kimura said. However, Asuncion said burying power lines can be cost-prohibitive, and has a big impact on rate-payers.
“I get that,” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, responded. “But sometimes the cost of doing nothing gets to be prohibitive too.”
Some victims of the fire also attended the hearing, submitting written testimony because they were not included among those asked to speak.
Kathleen Hennricks wrote that her family spent 10 agonizing days searching for her 57-year-old sister Rebecca Ann Rans after the fire, only to learn that she had died in the arms of her longtime partner, Doug Gleoge, just a few blocks from their home while trying to escape the fire.
“The biggest tragedy is that my sister’s death and the losses to our family were completely preventable,” Hennricks wrote. “My sister’s death was unnecessary, but please do not let it be meaningless. Steps must be taken now to prevent yet another fire on Maui.”
The FBI agents who informed her of Rans’ death said the only items that remained of her sister were a bracelet with the word “Kuuipo,” which means “sweetheart” in Hawaiian, and one burnt slipper.
Gleoge’s son and daughter, Jon Gleoge and Andrea Wheeler, also submitted testimony, saying the details of their father and Rans’ attempt to flee the fire “remain shrouded in uncertainty.”
“Perhaps the most excruciating aspect of this ordeal has been the condition of our dad’s remains,” the pair wrote. “The fire’s ferocity left his body unrecognizable, rendering viewing impossible. The weight of this reality is one that we both continue to grapple with daily.”
The committee declined to hear in-person testimony from the victims, though they attended.
“We are disappointed and angry that you did not feel it necessary to hear the voice of even one victim,” they wrote. “Caring would be giving time to hear at least one or two stories.”
Griffith, Energy and Commerce Committee chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee chair Rep. Jeff Duncan — all Republicans — also questioned Kimura, Asuncion and Glick about the cause of the fire in a letter sent Aug. 30.
The letter included 10 questions about the sequence of events on the day of the fire, efforts to mitigate fire risks posed by the electrical grid, the fire investigation and other issues.
Kimura has acknowledged that Hawaiian Electric’s downed lines caused the initial fire, but she wrote that the fire department said it extinguished that blaze and that the lines had been de-energized for more than six hours when the fire flared up in the same area again. She called the 3 p.m. blaze the “Afternoon Fire,” implying it was separate from the morning blaze — and wrote that its cause had not been determined.
Whether the lines were fully de-energized — meaning they were not transmitting any electrical voltage — might still be in question. At least one Lahaina resident told The Associated Press that their power came back on around 2 p.m., and Maui Police Chief John Pelletier has said that his officers were trying to keep people from driving over live power lines later that afternoon as residents fled the burning town.
Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, warned that if Congress does not act soon that the federal government will shut down and leave residents of Hawaii without the financial assistance needed to cope with the crisis. Scores of people were left without homes and jobs following the fire.
Pallone said a “reckless government shutdown, which we know is imminent,” would dramatically slow Maui’s recovery effort.
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