After weeks of speculation, Hawaiian Electric Company, which provides power to Lahaina, admitted that its power lines caused the first of two flare-ups in a field next to Lahaina Intermediate School. But, the company maintains it is not responsible for the fires that killed at least 115 people and left an unknown number of others missing, making them the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.
The statement came in response to a lawsuit filed Thursday by Maui County that claims the utility was supposed “to properly maintain and repair the electric transmission lines, and other equipment including utility poles associated with their transmission of electricity, and to keep vegetation properly trimmed and maintained so as to prevent contact with overhead power lines and other electric equipment.”
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Further, the suit says the electric company should have powered down its lines sooner, given the combination of very dry brush and very high winds. Today, Hawaiian Electric expressed disappointment at those claims.
“We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court even before completing its own investigation,” Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric said in a statement. “We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible. It is inconsistent with the path that we believe we should pursue as a resilient community committed and accountable to each other as well as to Hawaii’s future. We continue to stand ready to work to that end with our communities and others. Unfortunately, the county’s lawsuit may leave us no choice in the legal system but to show its responsibility for what happened that day.”
The first blaze, which the electric company called “The Morning Fire,” reportedly occurred on August 8 “near the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street at approximately 6:30 a.m.” A statement issued by Hawaiian Electric over the weekend maintains that videos taken by locals show “a small fire that can be seen by the downed lines spread[ing] into the field across the street from the Intermediate School.”
The utility maintains that the second flare-up that day, which it called “The Afternoon Fire” occurred while its employees were in the area repairing those downed lines, which were at that point powered off.
“Shortly before 3 p.m., while the power remained off, our crew members saw a small fire about 75 yards away from Lahainaluna Road in the field near the Intermediate School. They immediately called 911 and reported that fire.”
The crux of Hawaiian Electric’s argument seems to be that the Maui County Fire Department had declared the morning fire out and left the scene by the time the 3 p.m. flareup occurred.
“By 9 a.m. the Morning Fire was ‘100% contained,'” the company’s statement reads. “The Maui County fire chief subsequently reported that the Fire Department had determined that the Morning Fire was ‘extinguished,’ and the Fire Department left the scene by 2 p.m.”
Electric companies have been subject to mounting lawsuits in recent years over accusations their power lines have been the cause of increasingly massive fires across the Western U.S. The state of California’s single most costly and most deadly wildfire in recorded history, the 2018 Camp Fire, was ignited by a faulty electric transmission line. Early the next year, the utility responsible for those lines, Pacific Gas and Electric, filed for bankruptcy, citing expected wildfire liabilities of $30 billion.
PG&E, the nation’s largest utility, also agreed to pay more than $55 million to avoid criminal prosecution for the 2020 Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire, both sparked by its Northern California infrastructure.
In Southern California, the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County, which burned a total of 281,893 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures and resulted in one civilian and one firefighter fatality, was determined to have been caused by SCE’s equipment. Ditto the 2018 Woolsey wildfire which ripped through Agoura Hills and Malibu, killing three people and destroying 1,600 structures.
Earlier today, PG&E warned customers in seven Northern California counties that power shutoffs are likely on Wednesday due to the high danger of wildfires.
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