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UL’s FSRI investigators begin review of the response to the deadly Lahaina wildfire

The Fire Safety Research Institute will have subpoena power to gather information from Maui County on communication and firefighting details


A general view shows the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

By Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — Third-party investigators hired by the state Attorney General’s Office will start formal interviews with officials this week as they probe the county and state response to the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire, which killed at least 115 people and displaced 7, 500 others.

Third-party investigators hired by the state Attorney General’s Office will start formal interviews with officials this week as they probe the county and state response to the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire, which killed at least 115 people and displaced 7, 500 others.

State Attorney General Anne E. Lopez announced Aug. 30 the selection of the Fire Safety Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization, as the third party that will have subpoena power, under HRS 28-2.5, to handle the state’s investigation. The state contracted with Underwriters Laboratories Inc.'s FSRI to ensure an independent investigation.

“I am committed to an independent, unbiased, and transparent investigation into government actions during the fires. This type of investigation is a hallmark of a healthy democratic society and will lead to improved responsiveness and resilience in the future, " said Lopez in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “All state and county agencies answer to the people of Hawaii, and I fully expect that they all will voluntarily give interviews and provide documents relevant to the investigation.”

Speaking at a news conference Friday, Gov. Josh Green said he expects Congress to hold hearings on the fire.

FSRI’s team of former firefighters, including inspectors, fire scientists and incident commanders, started work on Maui on Aug. 24 and are updating Lopez and her team every two weeks, with the first update coming last week.

“Publicly revealing information prematurely could compromise the investigation, " according to a statement from the Department of the Attorney General, in response to a Star-Advertiser request to review the two-week update. “To protect the integrity of the process, the results of Phase I of the investigation will be released at the end of Phase I.”

The state probe is not looking at what sparked the Lahaina fire on Aug. 8. The investigation into the cause and origin of the Lahaina, Kula or Olinda fires of Aug. 8 has not been completed by the Maui Fire Department, and no timetable for completion is set, officials said.

The FSRI team will look into how Maui County and state agencies coordinated emergency alerts, evacuations, firefighting, communications and other details of the response to the fires, which destroyed more than 2, 200 structures, caused about $5.5 billion in damage and bludgeoned the island’s economy.

“We are in the very early stages of our review. We have spoken with many people involved in the Maui wildfires and have requested data that will help us determine who to interview and the questions to be asked during formal interviews with county, state and HECO employees, " said Steve Kerber, FSRI vice president and executive director, in a statement to the Star-Advertiser. “We expect the data requests to be fulfilled soon so we can move forward and meet the established timelines.”

Hawaiian Electric, facing an array of lawsuits from the county, survivors and investors, vowed to participate with both the state probe and the investigation by MFD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into what started the deadly Lahaina firestorm.

“Hawaiian Electric has been in communication with representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Hawaii Attorney General’s consultant, Fire Safety Research Institute, " according to a Hawaiian Electric statement to the Star-Advertiser. “We have and will continue to cooperate in the investigations into cause and origin.”

Maui police are conducting their own internal investigation and after-action report into officers’ response and actions on Aug. 8, according to Chief John Pelletier.

The MPD investigation will take 18-24 months, Pelletier said, and the findings will be shared with the law enforcement community. MPD will cooperate as needed with any and all entities in the various after-actions and investigations they are doing, he said.

“It’s appropriate to look at what went right, what did not go right and what are areas we can improve upon and take action on those areas, " said Pelletier, who noted that the MPD response to the fires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda will be reviewed to help improve police response in all areas.

It is extremely important to be as transparent and comprehensive as possible.

“How can you not be when you have lost 115 people and you have a community that is grieving and as hurt as ours is ?” asked Pelletier. “We want answers just like everyone else does.”

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