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Hawaii's power companies face questions in congress on deadly Maui fire

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A congressional committee held a hearing today on the causes of last month's fire on Maui, which killed at least 97 people. Much reporting so far has focused on power lines that came down in high winds. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the head of the island's power company told lawmakers today that there's no evidence downed lines caused the fire.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On August 8, winds were very high on Maui because of a passing hurricane. Residents say they saw fires started by downed power lines that day, which quickly spread. Some recorded and have posted videos. Numerous lawsuits have already been filed, blaming the company for the fire. At the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing, Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith talked about reports that the company hadn't done enough to take preventative steps such as controlling overgrown vegetation near its power lines.

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MORGAN GRIFFITH: Other reports have cited utility law experts who maintain that Hawaiian Electric waited too long to pursue important upgrades to harden and modernize the electric grid against wildfire risks.

ALLEN: If it's found liable for the fire, Hawaiian Electric will be in a tough position. Following a devastating wildfire in California in 2018 in which 85 people died, Pacific Gas and Electric faced numerous lawsuits and was forced into bankruptcy. Hawaiian Electric has said it doesn't anticipate it will have to file for bankruptcy. At today's hearing, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura reiterated earlier statements denying that her company was responsible for the fire that destroyed Lahaina and claimed nearly 100 lives. Kimura said a downed power line started a fire on August 8, but by midmorning, that fire was completely extinguished. By then, she said, the lines in that area had been de-energized. Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone then asked her about a fire that started up in that same area later that day around 3 p.m.

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FRANK PALLONE: And this is the blaze that then grew out of control and eventually destroyed Lahaina. Is that accurate?

SHELEE KIMURA: That's right. And by that time, at 3 p.m., our lines had been out for over six hours.

ALLEN: Kimura says it hasn't been determined yet what caused what she calls the afternoon fire. A key question will be whether there were, as Kimura maintains, two fires or if fires started by the company's downed lines smoldered and reignited as high winds swept over the island. There are two independent investigations currently ongoing into the fire. Hawaiian Electric is conducting its own inquiry. But despite prodding from Pallone, Kimura refused to agree that it will be released to the public.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.