Fire Investigation

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Fire Investigation 4This fall, forest fires have been significant in the 9th District and causes are yet to be determined.

In September, I held a hearing in the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to discuss the devastating Maui fires that occurred this past August. Our focus was investigating what role Maui’s electric infrastructure might have played in the events leading up to the fires.

As I said after the hearing, I was disappointed the Committee could not get answers on the timeline leading up to the deenergizing of the power lines on Maui from our witness, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura. The disappointment stemmed from the fact that notice was given to Hawaiian Electric that we were specifically looking at the timeline and Ms. Kimura was not prepared with the answers. Notwithstanding that, in the aftermath of a crisis sometimes it takes leaders time to gather all the appropriate answers.

Accordingly, I followed up with a series of written questions in order to get a better picture of the sequence of events and more information on Hawaiian Electric’s fire protocols and procedures. Ms. Kimura has since submitted detailed responses for the record.

I was particularly interested when on August 8th Hawaiian Electric deenergized their power lines. According to Ms. Kimura, Hawaiian Electric was aware of the Red Flag Warning issued by the National Weather Service, meaning there was an increased risk of fire. She said because of this, Hawaiian Electric implemented their Reclose Blocking Procedure. Under this protocol, if a fault causes a line to trip offline (or deenergize), the circuit breaker or recloser cannot automatically attempt to reenergize the circuit. It must be done manually after the line has been inspected and determined to be found “clear and intact”.

According to Ms. Kimura’s written answers, a power line tripped early the morning of August 8th and, following the protocol, was inspected, and deemed clear and intact. The company reenergized the line at 6 a.m. The same line was then tripped offline again at 6:39 a.m.

What is most concerning about this sequence of events is that the morning fire in Lahaina was reported at 6:37 a.m. Further, the fire was reported in the same area as the tripped line. It is reported that the morning fire was contained by 9 a.m. but, there is speculation that the morning fire might not have been completely extinguished, thus reigniting, and causing the deadly afternoon fire.

This leads many to wonder what would have happened if the line hadn’t been turned back on. Was it improper for the company to have reenergized the lines at 6 a.m., despite high winds continuing?

The Committee will continue to investigate and will hold more hearings to learn as much as possible about these fires and how to prevent such fires in the future.

One of the other things that came out during the hearing was the use of a “public safety power shutoff” program. This program, created due to fires in western states, including California, uses modern technology to quickly deenergize the power system in areas of high risk. This allows utility companies to cut electricity to specific areas before dangerous weather in order to limit the risk of fires. The program was not used in Hawaii.

My hope is that other power companies in the United States, including those in Virginia, will consider adopting this technology.

This was particularly pressing on my mind the last several weeks because in early November, Cardinal News reported that Virginia had five fires that had consumed more than 1,000 acres each. Of those, four were located in the 9th District. At that time, the Yocum Creek fire in Lee County covered 1,500 acres, the Rocklick Fire in Buchanan County covered 1,200 acres, the Rachel’s Chapel fire in Dickenson County covered 1,100 acres, and the Tuggle’s Gap in Patrick County covered 1,050 acres.

And as I write this column, the Matt’s Creek fire in Bedford County has already consumed over 11,000 acres. I hope to be with the forest service soon and see the damage.

While there is no indication at this time that any of these fires were caused by electric power lines, and while we did not experience high winds prior to these fires as occurred out west and in Hawaii, I believe this technology deserves due consideration.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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