The company’s chief executive was one of several Hawaii power industry officials called to testify at the first congressional hearing into the Aug. 8 wildfires.

Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura faced a barrage of questions Thursday from a congressional committee investigating the deadly Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui that devastated the town of Lahaina.

The hearing, which took place before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, lasted nearly two and half hours, and focused heavily on whether the public utility company could have done more to prevent the blaze.

Committee members asked a wide range of questions about the fire, the status of the ongoing investigations to determine its cause and if there were any options, such as undergrounding electric utility lines, that could help mitigate the chance that a similar disaster takes place in the future.

Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura testifies during a congressional hearing in Washington focused on her company’s actions on Aug. 8. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

During his opening remarks, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, the Republican chairman of the subcommittee, said it was critical that Congress take the time to investigate what happened to ensure accountability, but also look for solutions that could be applied elsewhere.

At least 97 people died in the fires, making it the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history.

“There are several investigations underway and still a lot of debate and speculation around the days in which the fires spread and about what has been done or not been done in years prior,” Griffith said. “Accordingly, it is extremely important that we convene today to begin to ask the hard questions.”

Kimura didn’t provide much new insight into the cause of the fire or what exactly Hawaiian Electric is doing to prevent another disaster.

In prepared remarks, she instead focused much of her testimony on the meaning of kuleana, a Hawaiian word that translates roughly to responsibility, and what that means for the company.

“We all want to learn about what happened on August 8 so that it never happens again,” she said.

Kimura briefly outlined Hawaiian Electric’s version of events from Aug. 8., saying that a downed power line was likely responsible for an early morning fire, but that Maui County fire crews reported putting out that blaze by early afternoon.

The cause of a second fire that started up in the same location after Hawaiian Electric de-energized its lines has yet to be determined, she said. It was that second fire that raced into Lahaina, trapping people in the flames and destroying hundreds of homes.

Kimura said Hawaiian Electric is cooperating with both state and federal investigators as they continue to unravel what happened on Aug. 8. Hawaiian Electric is also conducting its own internal review, she said, which is expected to take several months to complete.

When asked by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a top ranking Democrat on the committee, whether the results of that investigation would be made public Kimura was evasive.

“I think it’s too early to speculate on exactly what comes out of this,” she said. “But we are committed to sharing what’s critical with the public.”

“Is there any reason why you wouldn’t make it public?” Pallone asked. “You seem to be hesitating a little bit.”

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith is one of the House Republicans leading the investigation into Hawaiian Electric’s role in the Maui wildfires. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

“I think it’s just too early to speculate on what that is going to look like in the future,” she said.

It wasn’t the only time Kimura seemed to provide an unsatisfactory answer to members of the committee.

Both Griffith and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, questioned Kimura about why Hawaiian Electric didn’t de-energize its lines until the morning of Aug. 8 when it was clear that there was a high risk for fire.

The National Weather Service had issued a series of warnings on Aug. 6 and 7 about the potential wildfire danger due to strong winds and dry conditions that were being exacerbated by a hurricane south of the islands.

Castor said she happened to be Oahu for a congressional visit to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters on Aug. 8 so she knew just how hard the winds were blowing that day. Like Griffith, she wanted to know why Hawaiian Electric waited so long to cut the power knowing that West Maui in particular was at high risk for fire damage.

“It was extraordinarily windy and everyone was commenting on it,” Castor said. “They didn’t have an understanding yet of the extent of the devastation in Lahaina, but officials had been warning about the likelihood of high winds and wildfire risks for a couple of days.”

Kimura told the committee that Hawaiian Electric doesn’t proactively de-energize its power lines in advance of a storm, and she struggled at times to provide specific details about what the company was doing and when as the winds picked up and its poles were toppling in Lahaina.

After the hearing, Castor said Kimura should have been more prepared to answer the committee’s questions, especially about what it did in advance of the fire to respond to National Weather Service warnings.

“That’s what most people really want to know,” she said. “What was going on the 6th, the 7th and the 8th? What were they doing exactly?”

Kimura was asked about the invasive grasses and other overgrown brush that helped fuel the blaze and whether Hawaiian Electric was responsible for maintaining that vegetation if it’s in the company’s right of way.

Kimura acknowledged that while Hawaiian Electric can and will address trees and other vegetation that interferes with its lines, the company does not have the authority to clear brush from private property even if it is underneath its power lines.

“That is an issue that we all in our state need to be looking at,” she said.

A fallen utility pole near Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Kimura also faced questions about Hawaiian Electric’s pole maintenance program.

According to the companies own records it had tested and treated approximately 29,000 of its 31,000 poles for rot and termite damage since 2013. Lawmakers wanted to know whether any of the 2,000 poles that were not tested were in the Lahaina disaster zone.

Kimura said that while she didn’t know for sure, at least one pole near where the fire started had been inspected in 2022 and found to be OK.

“I don’t know the answer to that question right now,” Kimura said “There’s a lot happening right now and we’re still in response mode.”

In terms of what the future holds, Kimura was asked whether putting its lines underground was a feasible option. She noted that Hawaii already has some of the highest electrical rates in the country and that the cost of doing so is about five times as much as installing poles and lines.

“On a small island like Maui with only 70,000 customers that can get very expensive,” she said.

Kimura left the hearing without speaking with reporters.

But Jim Kelly, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, told reporters that he anticipates more information will be shared with the committee as it becomes available.

“What Shelee was able to share is kind of what we know right now,” Kelly said. “There are more details that we’re still trying to nail down.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case and U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda attended Thursday’s hearing to give their perspective on Congress’ role in providing oversight. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Chairman Leo Asuncion and Hawaii’s Chief Energy Officer Mark Glick also answered questions from committee members.

Hawaii’s U.S. representatives, Ed Case and Jill Tokuda, additionally testified before the committee, but did not take any questions from their fellow lawmakers.

Case and Tokuda had each previously expressed worry about the House Republicans launching an investigation into the wildfires and openly questioned whether the intent was to politically weaponize the disaster to undermine Democrats.

At the hearing, the representatives acknowledged the need for congressional oversight, but stressed that the priority should be how to get more federal resources to the people of Maui.

Republican infighting in the House over how to fund the government has put the country on the precipice of a fedral shutdown. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, which has been paying for recovery efforts, is also running short of cash, which requires congressional action to replenish the money.

Tokuda told the committee that funding the government and securing those disaster dollars should be the priority.

“Like you and I, our people have questions too and we all deserve answers,” she said. “Right now the most important question must be how can we keep the help coming to Maui.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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