House Republicans Demand Answers on Maui Fires and Grid Safety

House Republicans are demanding explanations from Hawaiian Electric and other stakeholders regarding the recent deadly fires in Maui.
House Republicans Demand Answers on Maui Fires and Grid Safety
A power pole, and burned cars and homes in a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, are seen on Aug. 17, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Caden Pearson

House Republicans are demanding explanations from Hawaiian Electric and other stakeholders regarding the recent deadly fires in Maui, the state of the electrical grid, and measures taken to prevent future incidents.

The chairs of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), and H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) penned a letter to officials at Hawaiin Electric, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, and the Hawai’i State Energy Office on Aug. 30.

“We seek a fuller understanding of the role, if any, of the electric infrastructure in this tragic event,” the lawmakers wrote (pdf).

The letter addresses several pressing concerns regarding the fire that swept through the town of Lahaina and its connection to the electric grid's condition and fire mitigation efforts.

The disaster, which claimed numerous lives and razed entire communities, has prompted scrutiny into the possible role of Hawaiian Electric's equipment in sparking the blaze.

The utility acknowledged this week that downed power lines initiated an initial fire at 6:30 a.m. However, they attributed the severity of the fire to county firefighting crews, alleging that the crews prematurely declared the initial fire as contained.

In a statement on Aug. 27, Hawaiian Electric said the Maui County Fire Department reported the initial fire was "100% contained" before allegedly leaving the scene "and later declared it had been 'extinguished." The utility claims that a second fire began at about 3 p.m. in the same area "when all of Hawaiian Electric's power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours."

The congressional leaders' letter raises questions about the sequence of events on Aug. 8, including actions taken by Hawaiian Electric. It also inquires into the company's efforts to address fire risks in the Maui grid prior to the incident.

Recent revelations about the proliferation of invasive grasses and shrubs on the island, coupled with reported failures to act on previous warnings, have intensified the inquiry into the effectiveness of measures taken to mitigate fire hazards.

The utility company acknowledged receipt of the letter in a statement obtained by The Hill.

“Hawaiian Electric is doing everything possible to support those who have been impacted on Maui as we continue our restoration and rebuilding efforts," a company spokesperson 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."

Maui County filed a lawsuit accusing Hawaiin Electric of mishandling power lines, but the utility countered, asserting its lines played a role in a morning fire that was subsequently put out.

Hawaiian Electric had previously issued statements outlining initiatives to prevent wildfires after fires in Maui in 2019. The congressional leaders, in their letter, seek information on the implementation of these initiatives and the utility's spending over the past decade to address identified fire risks.

Additionally, the letter questions the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission's actions related to fire risk on the Maui grid, the involvement of the Hawai’i State Energy Office in grid modernization, and the potential receipt of funds from recent infrastructure acts.

The letter requests responses to the queries at the earliest convenience.

On Aug. 29, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura, County of Maui Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr., and Major General Kenneth S. Hara, adjutant general for the state of Hawaii at the Department of Defense, released a statement.

“The safety of Maui residents, businesses, and visitors is the top priority of our government agencies and our dedicated state and county teams, supported by many partners in our community, including Hawaiian Electric," they said. "With high winds and severe drought conditions continuing to threaten parts of Maui, we are working together to minimize the risk of wildfire and ensure public safety.”

On Thursday, the utility said in a statement that it is working closely with state and county agencies to minimize wildfire risk and support public safety on all the islands it serves.

Last week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested that the House's Republican majority might initiate an inquiry into the federal response to the fires.