Washington — In the wake of the devastating wildfires thatlast week, claiming more than 100 lives, the Justice Department deployed federal emergency response teams to Hawaii to support the local response in determining the cause of the fires.
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were dispatched on Friday, the agency announced. The five-investigator team includes an ATF Fire Research Laboratory electrical engineer and an Arson and Explosives Group supervisor.
Announcing the deployment, ATF Seattle Field Division Special Agent in Charge Jonathan McPherson said in a statement, “We hope the deployment of National Response Team resources will allow the residents of Maui, and the state and nation as a whole, to know that we will do everything in our power to support our local counterparts in determining the origin and cause of the wildfires there, and hopefully bring some healing to the community.”
Although the ATF is mainly a law enforcement entity, fire investigators in the bureau often help local entities determine how wildfires started. And they’re not limited to responding to matters in which criminality is suspected.
In addition to the ATF investigators, 15 deputies from the U.S. Marshals Service were deployed to the island to assist with local law enforcement, a U.S. official told CBS News Friday.
The Justice Department’s response to the Maui blaze also includes agents from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, according to an ATF social media post. The two components did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the authority of a Justice Department mechanism called Emergency Support Function #13, federal agencies respond to natural and other disasters to assist with local safety and security. The policy dictates that the first line of response during disasters like the Maui fires lies with state and local authorities, but federal components assist “in situations requiring extensive public safety and security and where State, tribal, and local government resources are overwhelmed or are inadequate.”
Other federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security also conduct extensive emergency response functions.
More than 110 people have died as a result of the Lahaina fire — the deadliest wildfire in more than a century according to officials — and the search for victims continues. On Thursday, the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agencyafter his agency’s response to the blaze came under public scrutiny.
The cause of the fires has not been determined, and investigators are examining whether power lines may have sparked the wildfires.