Hawaii authorizes power cuts in high-risk weather conditions after Maui fire disaster

The main power utility in Hawaii will cut off electricity to some areas in future extreme weather conditions to avoid another wildfire disaster, the state announced Wednesday. The Public Safety Power Shutoff program is in response to last year’s fire that killed more than 100 people in Lahaina on the island of Maui and left $6 billion in damages.

“This means they may turn off power in high-risk wildfire areas during extreme weather conditions,” the Hawaii Division of Consumer advocacy said in a public notice Wednesday. “While this may create hardships for affected customers, PSPS aims to prevent wildfires caused by downed power lines.”

The new program goes into effect July 1. Hawaiian Electric says on its website that “a best-case scenario” would allow them to give people 24-48 hours’ notice before a shutdown. According to the public notice, residents would be notified of a potential shutoff through news releases, social media, outage maps or the Hawaiian Electric website. If weather changes suddenly, then a shutoff may occur with little or no notice.

High wind and red flag warnings were issued by the National Weather Service on August 8, the day of the devastating Maui wildfires. But during the disaster, the community’s siren warning system did not sound.

Investigations by the state and the Western Fire Chiefs Association said the disaster was exacerbated by lack of preparation and coordination. Maui County’s top emergency management official resigned days after defending the siren’s silence, citing health reasons.

Maui’s government filed a lawsuit in August accusing Hawaiian Electric of causing the wildfires. The lawsuit alleged the electric company “inexcusably kept their power lines energized,” despite the National Weather Service’s warning that winds could knock down power lines and cause fires.

The utility announced Wednesday it designated high-risk areas in three of the state’s counties – including parts of the west coast of Oahu, its most populous island – where emergency power shutoffs are authorized in a weather emergency. Hawaiian Electric says over 48,000 customers are in the affected areas.

“This is an action that is a last line of defense,” said Hawaiian Electric vice president Jim Kelly at a news conference.

Hawaii’s new power shutoff program is based on a similar program that has been in place in California since 2012.

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