Hawaii’s electric utility acknowledged its power lines started a wildfire on Maui but faulted county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene, only to have a second wildfire break out nearby and become the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.
Hawaiian Electric Company released a statement Sunday night in response to Maui County’s lawsuit blaming the utility for failing to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions. Hawaiian Electric called that complaint “factually and legally irresponsible,” and said its power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours before the second blaze started.
In its statement, the utility addressed the cause for the first time. It said the fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” The Associated Press reported Saturday that bare electrical wire that could spark on contact and leaning poles on Maui were the possible cause.
But Hawaiian Electric appeared to blame Maui County for most of the devastation — the fact that the fire appeared to reignite that afternoon and tore through downtown Lahaina, killing at least 115 people and destroying 2,000 structures.
Neither a county spokesperson and nor its lawyers immediately responded to a request for comment early Monday about Hawaiian Electric’s statement.
The Maui County Fire Department responded to the morning fire, reported it was “100% contained,” left the scene and later declared it had been “extinguished,” Hawaiian Electric said.
Hawaiian Electric said its crews then went to the scene to make repairs and did not see fire, smoke or embers. The power to the area was off. Around 3 p.m., those crews saw a small fire in a nearby field and called 911.
Hawaiian Electric rejected the basis of the Maui County lawsuit, saying its power lines had been de-energized for more than six hours by that time, and the cause of the afternoon fire has not been determined.
A drought in the region had left plants, including invasive grasses, dangerously dry. As Hurricane Dora passed roughly 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Hawaii, strong winds toppled power poles in West Maui. Video shot by a Lahaina resident shows a downed power line setting dry grasses alight. Firefighters initially contained that fire, but then left to attend to other calls, and residents said the fire later reignited and raced toward downtown Lahaina.
Videos and images analyzed by AP confirmed that the wires that started the morning fire were among miles of line that the utility left naked to the weather and often-thick foliage, despite a recent push by utilities in other wildfire- and hurricane-prone areas to cover up their lines or bury them.
Compounding the problem is that many of the utility’s 60,000, mostly wooden power poles, which its own documents described as built to “an obsolete 1960s standard,” were leaning and near the end of their projected lifespan. They were nowhere close to meeting a 2002 national standard that key components of Hawaii’s electrical grid be able to withstand 105 mile per hour winds.
Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii’s electric customers. CEO Shelee Kimura said there are important lessons to be learned from this tragedy, and resolved to “figure out what we need to do to keep our communities safe as climate issues rapidly intensify here and around the globe.”
The utility faces a spate of new lawsuits that seek to hold it responsible for the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Wailuku attorney Paul Starita, lead counsel on three lawsuits by Singleton Schreiber, called it a “preventable tragedy of epic proportions.”