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Subpoenas on Maui agencies and officials delay release of key report into deadly wildfire

FILE - A general view shows the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 22, 2023. Hawaii’s attorney general on Monday, March 18, 2024 blamed a delay of the release of a key report into a deadly Maui wildfire on county agencies that forced investigators to issue subpoenas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii’s attorney general on Monday blamed a delay of the release of a key report into a deadly Maui wildfire on county agencies that forced investigators to issue subpoenas.

The first phase of an independent investigation into the Aug. 8 fire that killed at least 101 people and destroyed much of historic Lahaina was expected to be released this month. It will instead be released on April 17.

The Fire Safety Research Institute was selected to provide a scientific analysis of the fire and recommendations. The firm so far has invoiced the state nearly $1.4 million, according to the attorney general's office.

Its “team encountered unexpected delays when gathering the critical facts for review, which had a direct impact on the rescheduled Phase One report release date,” Attorney General Anne E. Lopez's office said in a statement Monday.

Investigators initially reached out directly for information but the “initial responses from the county were often slow and yielded less information than expected,” Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the attorney general's office, said in a follow-up email to The Associated Press.

"The purpose of this investigation is to make sure that this tragedy never happens again, period," she wrote.

Lopez's office in November announced having to issue three subpoenas on the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the County of Maui Department of Public Works and the County of Maui Department of Water Supply seeking documents relevant to the investigation.

"The County of Maui stated that subpoenas would be required for all further information, including documents and interviews with county personnel," Lopez's office said. “As a result, the Department has needed to serve upon County of Maui agencies and officials, eight additional subpoenas for documents and 53 additional subpoenas for interviews, to date.”

Investigators now have the information needed to develop a timeline and analyze what happened, Schwartz said.

Maui County officials didn't immediately return a message from AP seeking comment on the delay.

The first phase of the report will focus on the first 24 to 72 hours of what became the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century and its aftermath, Lopez said.

“We all want fast answers, but it is critical that this investigation be thorough and accurate," Lopez said. “An analysis of this magnitude cannot be rushed, and we must allow for the time needed to make sure this investigation, based on science, is done correctly.”

Meanwhile, numerous lawsuits over the fire were sent back to state court from U.S. district court. According to lawyers involved, that could facilitate reaching settlement agreements sooner.

One of those attorneys, James Bickerton, said he's not confident the state can conduct a truly independent probe.

“The state shares in the fault and is being sued in these cases,” he said. “We feel the only real independent investigation that's going to get is done is by their plaintiffs and their counsel.”

More than seven months after the fire, thousands of people are still staying in hotels while they look for places to rent and wait for longer-term housing options.

In an emotional speech Friday, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said he is prioritizing housing, evaluating evacuation routes and hiring more firefighters as the community recovers.

Some of those who died in the fire were caught in traffic jams trying to leave Lahaina. Like many Hawaii towns, it sits sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains and has limited roads in and out.

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AP journalist Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.