Congressman Griffith's Weekly E-Newsletter 9.29.23
Oversight Subcommittee Hearing on Maui Fires
Friday, September 29, 2023 | Mollie Timmons (202-225-3861)
As we approach the end of the fiscal year and approved government funding, many of us are working hard to cut spending. Because of the increased spending our nation is facing, we’ve seen a $2.3 trillion deficit this year alone, adding to the overall $33 trillion national debt.
Republicans are still working hard trying to come up with an agreement that funds our government, secures our southern border, and reins in spending. The Democrats, however, are not willing to help. I feel this is partly philosophical, but mostly it is because they believe that the government shutdown benefits them in the elections next year.
In the meantime, Congress is in session, and we continue to work on numerous issues of concern, while the spending debate continues.
For example, recently the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which I chair, held a hearing on the devastating Maui fires that occurred this past August.
Specifically, the Committee investigated what role Maui’s electric infrastructure might have played in the events leading up to the fires.
Our witnesses included the Chairman of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, the Chief Energy Officer of the Hawai’i State Energy Office, and the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Hawaiian Electric.
As many of you may know, in early August a series of fires broke out on the island of Maui, including one that devastated the town of Lahaina on the west coast of the island.
As of now, at least 97 lives have been tragically lost and the damage caused by the fire is estimated at nearly $6 billion.
It seems there were many known risk factors related to Maui’s electric infrastructure which contributed to the likelihood of a wildfire.
Some wildfire experts have noted that dense, flammable non-native grasses have multiplied across the island in recent years, facilitating the deadly spread of the recent fires.
Some utility law experts argued that Hawaiian Electric waited too long to pursue important upgrades to harden and modernize the electric grid against wildfire risks. The reported slowness in replacing outdated and deteriorating poles (caused by weather, bug infestation, etc.) have also played a factor.
During my questioning, I focused on the actions taken by Hawaiian Electric on the morning of August 8th.
Weather reports from the National Weather Service stated that between August 7th and 8th the region would experience enhanced wind gusts and very dry conditions, issuing a High Wind Warning on the afternoon of August 7th. A Red Flag Warning was also issued, meaning that there was an even greater increased risk of fire.
During her testimony, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura stated that the company was aware of the Red Flag Warning, noting that they were aware certain areas were experiencing wind gusts of 80 miles per hour.
I asked Ms. Kimura when during the night the company learned exceptionally high winds were occurring. Even though she is the President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric, and knew she was coming to Congress to testify under oath, she could not tell us at what time the company learned dangerous winds were hitting western Maui.
My Senior Policy Advisor, JR Walker, quickly informed me that the National Weather Service had issued the Red Flag Warning at 4:42 a.m. on August 7th. This information is important as Hawaiian Electric did not deenergize their power lines on Maui until around 7 a.m. on the 8th.
By 6:37 a.m., a brush fire was reported as dry grass had caught fire due to sparks from downed power lines. Though thought to be contained by the Maui Fire Department around 9 a.m., the fire then flared up again around 3:30 p.m. This was the devastating fire in Lahaina that many saw on the news.
I was disappointed we could not get answers on the timeline leading up to the deenergizing of the power lines on Maui. Ms. Kimura could not even tell us how long it would take for the power lines to be safe after deenergizing.
We still have more questions than answers.
Hawaiians and all Americans should know what led to the fires and how to prevent something like this from happening again in our country.
The Committee will continue to investigate in the months ahead.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.