US House energy subcommittee grills Hawaiian Electric CEO about utility’s role in deadly Lahaina fire

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Swearing in at the US House Energy & Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Sept. 28, 2023. (L-R) Shelee Kimura, President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric; Mark B. Glick, Chief Energy Officer of the Hawai’i State Energy Office; and Leodoloff R. Asuncion, Jr., Chairman of the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission. (Screenshot)

During the first Congressional fact-finding hearing about the deadly Aug. 8 Lahaina fire, members of the US House Energy & Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Thursday grilled Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura about de-energizing power lines, wildfire mitigation efforts and replacing above ground lines connected to wood poles with buried lines.

But at this early stage — with internal, state and federal investigations just getting started — no answers were provided about the precise role played in the cause and quick spread of the fire by Hawaiian Electric, or two Hawaiʻi State agencies that oversee energy policy and the utility.

What was clear is that the committee members and witnesses — Kimura; Leodoloff R. Asuncion, Jr., Chairman of the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission; and Mark B. Glick, Chief Energy Officer of the Hawai’i State Energy Office — all agreed: “It should never happen again.”

Subcommittee Chair Morgan Griffith (R-VA) opened the hearing in Washington, D.C., with the sad facts that everyone already knows too well on Maui: “Tragically, the Lahaina fire took at least 97 lives, burned thousands of acres, caused billions of dollars in damage, and destroyed multiple native Hawaiian cultural and historical landmarks.”

There are currently several lawsuits and internal, state and federal investigations taking place regarding the Maui fires.


“While many continue to debate which exact decisions and circumstances contributed to the catastrophic scale of the Maui fires, it is not too early to start examining what can be done better,” Griffith said.

And one thing that can be done better is fire prevention.

Griffith said where he comes from in Virginia, school systems watch snowstorm forecasts “and even before the first flake drops, if they see significant weather they shut the school systems down.”

So in light of this analogy, he asked Kimura what was Hawaiian Electric’s decision-making process in not de-energizing the power in the Lahaina area “during the critical period” that occurred between learning of the National Weather Service’s Red Flag Warning of high fire risk — and the beginning of the first Lahaina fire at about 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 8.

“Were there people who were awake all night monitoring this storm to see what they could do?” Griffith asked. “What’s going on? Tell us and the American people what was going on and why you did not de-energize earlier?”


Kimura told him those decisions were made years before based on a protocols in a wildfire mitigation plan that were put together in 2019 based on what they had learned of the plans in California, including its Public Safety Power Shutoff, a preemptive program to temporarily de-energized lines.

Kimura said a team at Hawaiian Electric determined that program wasn’t an appropriate fit in Hawaiʻi, which is very unique. She didn’t elaborate why at the hearing.

But she did say: “We have other protocols in place during high winds.”

“Going forward, are you re-examining that?” Griffith asked.

Kimura said the company is reevaluating their protocols.


On Aug. 8, the combination of Hurricane Dora passing south of the Hawaiian Islands and a high pressure to the north causing low humidity and very strong and gusty easterly winds across the area at about 25 to 45 mph with gusts possible of more than 60 mph. This was coupled with drought conditions and plenty of dry vegetation on Maui.

In her testimony, Kimura said: “A fire at 6:30 a.m., the ‘Morning Fire,’ appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.”

She said a resident captured on video a power line falling and sparking a fire in that area.

“It started on a grassy area between a sidewalk and road and what we think it did was travel up an adjacent field that was behind one of the homes,” she said.

It turned into about a 3-acre fire that the Maui Fire Department was able to 100% contain by 9 a.m. and extinguish in the afternoon, she said.

Kimura testified the power was de-energized shortly before 7 a.m. and was never re-energized on Aug. 8.

She also testified the lines in the area had been de-energized for six hours when the second Lahaina fire began around 3 p.m. in the same area of Lahaina. Only this time the winds were much stronger and burned down much of Lahaina.

Kimura was asked how long it takes for energy to stop flowing through the lines once they are de-energized, but could not immediately provide that answer.

When asked about burying power lines in the future, Kimura said it is about five times more expensive to do so, and particularly costly to the only 70,000 ratepayers on Maui who would have to share the high cost while already paying the highest electricity rates in the nation.

Nevertheless, she said underground power lines make up about 50% of the system in Hawaiʻi, compared to only 33% in California.

Another reason to bury lines is so they don’t topple in high winds to block evacuation routes, which led to bottlenecks and gridlock on the few roads in and out of Lahaina during the fire.

Kimura said Hawaiian Electric customers can choose to have underground power lines at their own expense.

Asunsion, the chair of the Public Utilities Commission, testified many of the new communities have chosen to bury their electric lines. But he added that as an urban planner, he also knows water tables could be an issue when putting them underground.

Kimura was asked about its wildfire mitigation efforts relating to maintaining the vegetation and trees around its above ground lines, especially in light of a 2018 fire in Lahaina that burned 21 homes and 2,100 acres and could have been worse with stronger winds.

Kimura said Hawaiian Electric has been working to improve its existing infrastructure and improving wildfire mitigation through its proposed $190 million, five-year Climate Adaptation Transmission and Distribution Resilience Program — which currently is awaiting approval from the state Public Utilities Commission.

The 504-page application for the program was submitted to the utility commission in June 2022, more than a year ago.

When asked about the program, Anuscion testified it is “coming along well. There was a filing of the application and then there was an opportunity for Hawaiian Electric to get some federal money to supplement that, right. At the end of the day, it does save our ratepayers about half of the cost.”

During U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm’s trip to Maui on Sept. 11, she touted the US Department of Energy’s $95 million grant to Hawaiian Electric to fund half of that resiliency program.

Ansunsion said the Public Utilities Commission is committed to rendering a decision about the program 90 days from the announcement of that grant.

Kimura was asked about the utility’s “test and treat” maintenance of its wood poles. She said 29,000 of its 31,000 poles across Hawai’i had been tested and treated since 2013.

She testified she did not know if any of the remaining 2,000 wood poles that were not maintained during the past decade were located in the burn area of Lahaina, but did say one pole that was had been done in 2022. This means many others likely were, too.

Kimura also testified that Hawaiian Electric had just received five video cameras, which it had ordered before the fires, to be place in critical areas on Maui for surveillance.

Part of the reason for the subcommittee’s inquiry is to find out what lessons can be learned from the energy utility’s protocols, actions and wildfire mitigation efforts before and during the Aug. 8 wildfires.

These lessons will be used to not only help Maui and Hawaiʻi prevent another such disaster — but also guide other utility companies around the country who also have to deal with the ever-growing wildfires problem.

“We must do everything we can to minimize the chance that such a destructive and deadly disaster will occur again on Maui or anywhere else,” Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in her opening statement. “If we fail, it very well could.”

The committee members also agreed that Congress should continue to do what it can to help Maui recover, with Democrats on the committee hammering home that much-needed replenishment of federal disaster funding would be delayed if a handful of House Republicans force the federal government to shutdown in two days.

“Congress should focus on ensuring that the federal government can continue providing relief to the people of Maui,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). “And that means funding the government and funding FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which the President has asked us to do. … A reckless government showdown, or shutdown I should say, which we know is imminent, would slow Maui’s ability to rebuild and recover.”


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