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Hawaii AG seeks interview on 2018 Lahaina wildfire

HONOLULU — The state Department of the Attorney General filed a motion on Monday to force the director of the Maui Emergency Management Agency to answer questions about how he commanded the response to the 2018 West Maui fires fueled by Hurricane Lane.

As part of the ongoing investigation into the Aug. 8 fires that killed 102 people, devastated Lahaina and left thousands homeless, the state issued three subpoenas on May 29 to the current MEMA administrator, Amos Lonokailua-­Hewett; Darryl Takeda, MEMA’s community emergency response team manager; and Mahina Martin, Mayor Richard Bissen’s communications director on Aug. 8.

Martin and Takeda complied and sat for interviews June 7.

But the county maintained its silence about lessons learned from the August 2018 wildfire fueled by 70 mph gusts from Hurricane Lane, which burned 2,000 acres in Lahaina and destroyed 30 vehicles and 21 structures, most of them homes.

On June 6, the county filed a motion to quash the subpoena in the special proceeding initiated to adjudicate the numerous civil suits arising from the Maui wildfires, according to Monday’s application to compel obedience to investigatory subpoena.

Maui County’s filing of a motion to quash in the ongoing civil litigation is “an entirely different proceeding from the investigation” and “is procedurally improper and the Attorney General will be filing a motion to strike the County’s motion,” read the application, authored by Deputy Attorney General Ciara W.K. Kahahane.

Lonokailua-Hewett “has unique personal knowledge as the individual in command of MFD’s response to the Hurricane Lane fire.”

The contractor that the attorney general hired to conduct the investigation into the response to the fatal fires, the Fire Safety Research Institute, believes an after-action report is “typically prepared summarizing the events of the fire, identifying lessons learned, and making recommendations for the future.”

“It is my understanding based on discussions with FSRI that, when preparing an official report examining the emergency response to a wildfire, it is typical to review past fire AARs to learn how an organization responded to previous incidents and ultimately, how that experience informed their response to a future incident with similar conditions,” wrote Kahahane.

“MFD did not release an AAR of the Hurricane Lane fire. Therefore, speaking to Lonokailua-Hewett will give FSRI an opportunity to learn about the Hurricane Lane fire from MFD’s perspective, including how MFD responded to the Hurricane Lane fire; the challenges MFD encountered during the fire; what MFD did afterwards to address future similar threats (prevention); and changes and adjustments that MFD made to improve future response capabilities.”

David J. Minkin, an attorney with McCorriston Miller Mukai MacKinnon LLP who is representing the county, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement that the county notified the state prior to filing its motion to quash Lonokailua-Hewett’s subpoena that the state never argued the filing was “procedurally improper.”

The county’s motion is proper because it was filed in the special proceeding that contains all cases related to the August 2023 Maui fires and “will be heard in the same Maui court before the same judge.”

The county believes this is the “more appropriate venue” because Director Lonokailua-Hewett’s testimony is “beyond the scope of FSRI’s Phase II work,” which is “limited to analyzing policy recommendations moving forward” and is “broadly applicable to the many plaintiffs and parties involved in the ongoing lawsuits.”

“The Court has already ruled that these lawsuits are important, even as compared to the FSRI investigation, and the County accordingly seeks to make Director Lonokailua-Hewett available to all plaintiffs, defendants, and FSRI in a singular setting,” said Minkin.

The county already has made more than 150 current and former county personnel available for FSRI interviews on Maui, O‘ahu and in Arizona.

On May 3, the court ordered that the attorney general produce the tape recordings of these interviews to all parties.

“To date, the state has not complied with the court’s order. The county supports the Plaintiffs’ argument that the production of the taped interviews will narrow the number of depositions in the litigation and promote a more efficient resolution,” Minkin argued.

“The county is not refusing to allow an interview or deposition of Director Lonokailua-Hewett related to 2018 and his employment then as a Battalion Chief in the Maui Fire Department; however, it should be done with all parties participating — the plaintiffs, the state, and the other defendants.”

Attorney General Anne E. Lopez told the Star-Advertiser that the investigation her office is running through FSRI is “wholly separate from and pre-dates the ongoing tort litigation, the purpose of which is to assign fault and monetary liability.”

“Attempts to confuse the AG’s independent investigation with the adversarial tort litigation are improper and counterproductive. FSRI has and will continue to conduct interviews and follow the facts where they lead. This includes conducting follow up interviews to make sure they are able to accurately represent perspectives on what transpired in the Emergency Operations Center during the 2023 Maui fire, especially as new information is presented,” Lopez said.

“Conducting interviews related to the handling of similar fire incidents (such as the 2018 Hurricane Lane fire) falls squarely within the scope of their investigation and informs the analysis by providing important insight into the emergency response and changes implemented after the 2018 Hurricane Lane fire incident, leading up to the 2023 fire incident.”

In addition to Maui County officials and employees, FSRI has had discussions with representatives and received data and materials from Hawaiian Electric, Lopez said.

FSRI also interviewed officials and employees from state and federal government

The interviews and discussions included Gov. Josh Green, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who was acting governor Aug. 8 while Green was on a planned trip, and officials and employees from the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Department of Health, the University of Hawai‘i, the National Parks Service, United States Coast Guard and the National Weather Service.

“The state and federal agencies as well as HECO were forthcoming with interviews and material requests and did not require the issuance of subpoenas prior to their cooperation,” Lopez said.

Maui Circuit Court Judge Peter T. Cahill is scheduled to hear the state’s application on July 31 at 8:15 a.m.
Source: The Garden Island

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