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Hawaii agencies subpoenaed for failing to meet wildfire investigation timelines

Three Maui County departments failed to meet deadlines for providing information from the Aug. 8 wildfires that killed 100, left 7, 500 homeless

Hawaii Wildfires Governor

FILE - A general view shows the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 22, 2023. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green is announcing the creation of a $150 million fund to help those who lost family members or who were injured in Maui’s wildfires. The governor’s office says beneficiaries will receive payments of more than $1 million as early as the April-June quarter of next year. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Jae C. Hong/AP

By Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

MAUI COUNTY, Hawaii — Subpoenas have been served to the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the County of Maui Department of Public Works and the Department of Water Supply.

Three Maui County departments were served subpoenas Monday after not meeting the timelines with a state investigation into their response to the Aug. 8 wildfires that killed 100, left 7, 500 homeless and caused $5.5 billion in damage.

Subpoenas have been served to the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the County of Maui Department of Public Works and the Department of Water Supply. The subpoenas “will allow the Attorney General to collect information in a timely manner, " according to a news release from state Attorney General Anne E. Lopez.

“We appreciate the cooperation of the Maui fire and police departments, and while we continue to work through some issues, their leaders and line responders have been transparent and cooperative, " said Lopez in a statement.

Mahina Martin, chief of communications and public affairs for Maui County, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement that the county received eight requests for information, totaling 80 specific items.

Thirty-two of those items “have been completed and submitted and 20 items are pending, " either due to processing or a response from the department that holds the records, Martin said.

Additionally, 12 items require U.S. Department of Homeland Security clearance before they can be produced, according to the county.

The remaining items requested are either not under the “custodianship or jurisdiction of the County or are too general and are pending further clarification " from investigators.

Over 90 interviews of county personnel have been completed so far, Martin confirmed. She said county workers understand that Lopez “has a difficult job.”

“The County of Maui has cooperated fully with the investigation into the August fire that happened a little over three and a half months ago, " said Martin. “We share in Attorney General Lopez’s commitment to keep our community safe and no one wants the truth more than those of us who live on Maui. We also have the additional task of disaster response and recovery efforts and doing our best in meeting those needs as well. The outcome of the investigation will ultimately help us. Our challenge is providing FSRI ( Fire Safety Research Institute ) what they ask for and meeting their timeline of when they want it.”

[RELATED: UL’s FSRI tasked with investigating tragic Hawaii wildfire]

Investigators have yet to request an interview with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen.

There is no timetable for the completion of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety’s investigation into the Aug. 8 fires.

Jason R. Chudy, public information officer for the ATF’s Seattle Field Division, told the Star-Advertiser the bureau is packaging the evidence it gathered and will turn it over to Maui firefighters in.

After obtaining the complete set of “critical facts " for the Fire Safety Research Institute, the third party contracted by the state to handle the investigation, Lopez will announce “a revised date for sharing the Phase 1 results with the people of Hawaii .”

The timeline for the release of the Phase 1 findings is “dependent on the Fire Safety Research Institute gaining access to all facts before completing Phase 1 and a comprehensive scientific analysis on how the fire incident unfolded.”

“Until that happens, this critical process cannot move forward, " Lopez said.

In order to “capture timely and accurate information " while first responders can “recall details of the wildfires, " the FSRI team has been working on Maui since the end of August.

The willingness of Lahaina community members to “share their stories is vital and appreciated.”

“We have conducted more than 100 conversations and viewed more than 1, 000 personal videos and images shared by many of the residents affected by the wildfires, " said Steve Kerber, vice president and executive director of FSRI, in a statement. “We are committed to investigating all of the facts, and that requires accessing real-time information as the fire situation unfolded.”

The FSRI team has been scheduling time with local emergency services and federal, state and local organizations that responded to the wildfires to collect whatever evidence and accounts of activity they can.

Lopez announced in August that the probe would take 12 months.

The independent investigation is meant “to find the facts and develop new policies and procedures to save lives and property in the future.” FSRI’s team of former firefighters, including inspectors, fire scientists and incident commanders, started work on Maui on Aug. 24.

They are looking at how county and state agencies coordinated emergency alerts, evacuations, firefighting, traffic, communications and other aspects of the response to the wildfires.

The Attorney General Office’s investigation is one of many probes into the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the past century.

Unlike California, Hawaii has not passed state statutes creating criminal penalties for large wildfires that allow for prosecutions like the one Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey conducted following the 2018 Camp Fire.

That prosecution ended with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pleading guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter.

The Attorney General Office’s investigation comes amid an array of lawsuits filed against Hawaiian Electric and Maui County by fire victims and investors. Maui County also has sued Hawaiian Electric to determine civil liability for the fires.

FSRI’s investigators are working while county and private attorneys seek evidence through discovery, and after-action reports by Maui Emergency Management Agency, police and firefighters.

“I remain personally invested in representing the truth, ensuring a comprehensive, independent investigation and communicating throughout this process, " Lopez said Monday in a statement. “Our communities expect and deserve a safer Hawaii .”

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