Hawaii wildfires: ATF team with electrical engineer investigating cause of deadly blaze

Search and rescue crews look through the remains of a neighborhood on August 17, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. 

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is deploying a team that includes an electrical engineer to investigate the origins of the catastrophic Hawaii wildfires, as the local power company faces growing scrutiny over whether downed electric poles triggered the blaze.

The ATF has deployed a national response that includes an electrical engineer, three fire investigators, and an expert from the bureau’s arson and explosives group, according to an agency statement late Thursday. The team will assist Maui County fire officials in their investigation.

The wildfires have left at least 111 people dead, with the death toll expected to rise as search dogs comb the devastated town of Lahaina for others who perished. The blaze is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century and the worst disaster in Hawaii state history.

Hawaiian Electric has faced growing scrutiny for not shutting down power lines despite warnings from the National Weather Service that high winds from Hurricane Dora and drought conditions in the state created a high fire risk.

Hawaiian Electric is already facing four lawsuits from Maui residents alleging that the power company’s lines played a role in the fires.

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The company issued a statement on Tuesday, Aug. 8, the day brush fires began spreading, that 30 poles were down in West Maui and 30 spans of power lines were down in Upcountry.

During a news conference Monday, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said 400 poles out of 750 were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, 300 out of 575 transformers were visibly damaged, and the Lahaina substation was destroyed.

Kimura said Hawaiian Electric doesn’t have a program to shut off power to prevent wildfires. She said the practice is not universally accepted in the industry because it can create hardship for people using specialized medical equipment.

Kimura also noted that electricity plays a key role in providing water to Lahaina: “The electricity powers the pumps that provide the water, and so that was also a critical need during that time,” she said. 

In an aerial view, burned cars and homes are seen a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire on August 17, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. 

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

“There are choices that need to be made and all of those factors play into it,” Kimura said. “So every utility will look at that differently depending on the situation.”

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is also investigating the local emergency response to the wildfires, as officials face criticism for not doing enough to alert people.

The Maui Emergency Management Agency did not activate sirens during the blaze. Herman Andaya, the agency’s administrator, resigned on Thursday after defending his decision to not activate sirens. When asked whether he regretted his decision, Andaya said, “I do not.”

Andaya said the sirens are used primarily for tsunamis and officials were worried people would seek higher ground if they were activated. This would have been dangerous during the fires, he said.

Gov. Josh Green has said the review of the response is not a criminal investigation.

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