Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who traveled to Maui earlier this month to witness the devastation, has vowed to get to the bottom of what happened when a wildfire destroyed much of the coastal community killing at least 115 people.

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House Energy and Commerce committee announced Thursday that it plans to hold its first public hearing on the Maui wildfires on Sept. 28, and that Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric will be among the witnesses expected to testify.

Hawaiian Electric, which has a subsidiary on Maui, has been blamed for starting the Aug. 8 fire in Lahaina, leaving much of it in ruin and at least 115 dead.

The blaze is considered the worst wildfire in a century in the U.S. and one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit the islands.

HECO crews install utility poles and lines on Honoapiilani Highway Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
HECO crews install utility poles and lines on Honoapiilani Highway Wednesday in Lahaina after a deadly wildfire ripped through the community on Aug. 8. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee chair, announced the investigation in late August after sending a letter to Kimura and top officials at the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and Hawaii State Energy Office demanding answers to a series of questions focused on determining what caused the fire and whether anything could have been done to prevent such widespread devastation.

“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,” she said in a letter co-signed by two of her fellow committee members, including U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith who heads the oversight subcommittee.

Hawaiian Electric power lines that were damaged in a storm have been blamed for sparking the blaze and numerous lawsuits have already been filed against the utility.

The company has issued a statement acknowledging an early morning fire in Lahaina was sparked by a downed electrical line but that the cause of the afternoon fire that whipped through Lahaina has not been determined. The company blames Maui County pulling its fire crews from Lahaina after it believed the morning fire to be extinguished.

Hawaiian Electric says its power lines had been deenergized for hours before the second, more destructive fire broke out.

Jim Kelly, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, said in a written statement that Kimura plans to attend the committee hearing in person to “share what we know about what happened on Maui on Aug. 8.”

“We also see this as an important opportunity to speak to the need to address increasing threats from extreme and historic weather events in Hawaii and across the country,” he said.

Another committee concern is the uncontrolled growth of invasive grasses and other vegetation on property surrounding Lahaina, including land owned by Kamehameha Schools and the state of Hawaii. Those grasses have been blamed for fueling the blaze and allowing it to spread as quickly as it did into the historic beachfront town.

In addition to Kimura, the committee has called on Hawaii PUC Chairman Leo Asuncion and Hawaii Chief Energy Officer Mark Glick to testify at the hearing.

In a statement to Civil Beat, Glick said that he will “look forward to working with the Committee and other federal partners to assist Maui as it recovers from this tragedy.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee is not alone in its investigation into the Maui wildfires.
The House Oversight Committee has similarly announced its own investigation into the federal government’s response to the disaster, although it has yet to announce any hearings.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who visited Lahaina on Sept. 3, has said he wants to get to the truth of what happened on Aug. 8 so that it can be prevented in the future.

At least one member of Hawaii’s Democratic congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, has expressed misgivings about the House investigations, saying that he hopes they are not used merely to score political points.

“This is clearly not a situation to be politicized,” he said.

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

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