Republicans in the House have announced two separate investigations into the Aug. 8 fire that killed at least 115 people in Lahaina.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced Thursday it is launching an investigation into Hawaiian Electric Co. for its role in the deadly wildfire that consumed Lahaina on Aug. 8, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 115 people.

In a letter addressed to the heads of HECO, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii State Energy Office, the House committee’s chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said that she and her colleagues had a number of concerns about HECO’s potential culpability in the fire and whether it had done enough to prepare for the catastrophe given that officials had known for years that such a disaster was a real possibility.

The letter notes that there’s evidence that a downed HECO power line may have been the cause of the blaze that eventually engulfed Lahaina.

A MECO warning tag marks a utility pole in the area mauka of the Lahaina Bypass where a wildfire burned near a power station Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. A large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A MECO warning tag marks a utility pole in the area mauka of the Lahaina Bypass on Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“Our hearts are with the people of Maui as they confront immense grief, sadness, and despair, especially for those who are still searching for their missing loved ones,” McMorris Rodgers said. “The pain is unimaginable and the road to recovery is long. We must come to a complete understanding of how this disaster started to ensure Hawaii and other states are prepared to prevent and stop other deadly wildfires.”

The letter was signed by McMorris Rodgers as well as U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, the chairman of the subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security, and U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, who leads the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

McMorris Rodgers, Duncan and Griffith are all Republicans.

The Maui wildfires have become increasingly politicized in recent weeks, particularly in Washington where Republicans have openly criticized President Joe Biden for not immediately visiting the disaster zone and telling a reporter on Aug. 13 that he had “no comment” about the rising death toll in Maui.

A spokesperson for the White House has since clarified that Biden did not in fact hear the reporter’s question before responding.

Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration for Maui on Aug. 10, which freed up access to billions of dollars in federal aid. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 federal employees have been deployed to Maui to help in the recovery efforts.

McMorris Rodgers’ investigation is the second GOP-led congressional probe into the Maui wildfires, which also scorched earth and homes upcountry around Kula and Olinda.

Earlier this week, the House Oversight Committee, which is led by U.S. Rep. James Comer, announced it would mount its own investigation into the federal government’s response to the disaster.

Members of Hawaii’s Democratic congressional delegation have questioned whether Comer’s investigation was politically motivated.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Maui this weekend.

Despite partisan concerns, a number of Democrats and Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, have pushed legislation that would create a single, independent board to investigate natural disasters as well as the government’s response. So far, that legislation has yet to take hold in Congress.

McMorris Rodgers’ letter demands that HECO provide a timeline of its actions on Aug. 8 and in the immediate aftermath of the fire. It also calls on the electric utility, the PUC and the state energy office to provide information about their efforts to mitigate the spread of invasive grasses that provided fuel for the fire as it raced into Lahaina.

In addition, the committee is seeking information that shows how much money HECO has invested in Maui over the past decade to harden its infrastructure, invest in renewable energy and address wildfire risks. The letter specifically cites a 2021 report from Maui County that assessed the growing threat of wildfires and seeks information about whether any of the report’s recommendations were followed.

Darren Pai, a spokesman for HECO, acknowledged in a brief statement to Civil Beat that company officials have received the letter and “look forward to working with the committee.”

“Hawaiian Electric is doing everything possible to support those who have been impacted on Maui as we continue our restoration and rebuilding efforts,” Pai said. “We are also working with a number of different entities to keep our communities safe, as climate issues rapidly intensify here and around the globe.”

You can read the full letter here:

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