Maui County sues Hawaiian Electric over wildfire negligence
Maui County has filed a lawsuit against energy company Hawaiian Electric, alleging that it neglected to deactivate electric equipment before wildfires ignited on the island.
The lawsuit contends that by turning off power lines during extreme winds and dry conditions, the devastating damage could have been averted. The Lahaina fire resulted in the tragic loss of 115 lives, with over 1,000 individuals still unaccounted for.
The company expressed disappointment at the county’s decision to initiate legal action while the fire investigation was ongoing. Witnesses reported observing sparks emanating from power lines that triggered fires subsequent to the destruction of utility poles due to hurricane-induced winds.
The lawsuit asserts that the utility firm was aware that strong winds could lead to the toppling of power poles, the collapse of power lines, and the ignition of vegetation. It further stated that the company had been forewarned about hazardous wildfire conditions by the National Weather Service.
According to the lawsuit, the company knew that if its overhead electrical infrastructure sparked a fire, the blaze would rapidly spread. The lawsuit argued that significant and catastrophic losses could have been averted if the company had implemented a safety shut-off plan during high wind occurrences, akin to protocols adopted by other utility companies.
Furthermore, the lawsuit alleged that Hawaiian Electric had a responsibility to adequately maintain and repair its power lines, as well as trim vegetation to prevent contact with overhead lines and other electrical components.
The county said it is seeking compensation for damage to public property and resources in Lahaina and nearby Kula.
In a statement to the BBC on Thursday, Hawaiian Electric said that since the fires, it had been focused on doing what it could to support the people of Maui.
“We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”
The wildfire that ripped through the Hawaiian town of Lahaina on 8 August destroyed most of the historic town and the fires are now considered the worst natural disaster in Hawaii state history.
Authorities are now expected to make public a list of the missing in the coming days to try to narrow the search.
Search teams combing through the rubble are finding only bones or fragments of bodies.
The county said: “Maui County stands alongside the people and communities of Lahaina and Kula to recover public resource damages and rebuild after these devastating utility-caused fires.
“These damages include losses to public infrastructure, fire response costs, losses to revenues, increased costs, environmental damages, and losses of historical or cultural landmarks.”
Temporarily shutting off power to reduce fire risk is a tactic used in western US states, where wildfires are common. In California, power lines have been blamed for half of the state’s most destructive wildfires.