Maui Fire 'Was Not Only Predictable, It Was Predicted'

Lawsuits say Hawaiian Electric knew of wildfire risks but failed to act promptly
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 17, 2023 6:43 AM CDT
Maui Fire 'Was Not Only Predictable, It Was Predicted'
This combination of images from video made by neighbors Shane Treu, left, and Robert Arconado on Aug. 8, 2023 shows fires outside their homes on Maui.   (Shane Treu, Robert Arconado via AP)

The deadliest US wildfire in more than a century "was not only predictable, it was predicted" by Hawaiian Electric and "anyone else who bothered to look into the issue," says Mikel Watts, the lead attorney in a lawsuit filed against the company Wednesday. The lawsuit accuses the company, which provides electricity to around 95% of Hawaiians, of failing to take steps to prevent wildfires despite outlining the risks in its own documents, NBC News reports. "They were grossly negligent by making conscious decisions to delay grid modernization projects that would have prevented this very tragedy," Watts says of the Maui wildfire. The death toll from the disaster now stands at 111 and is expected to keep rising. More:

  • Videos suggest power lines caused fire. Videos filmed by residents suggest that fallen utility lines caused the blaze that destroyed the Maui town of Lahaina, the AP reports. Shane Treu, who livestreamed his attempt to fight the fire, says it was "almost like somebody lit a firework" when a power pole snapped in high winds and the sparking line ignited dry grass.

  • Faults were detected close to where fires began. The New York Times reports that according to data from Whiskers Labs, a company that monitors electrical grids, major incidents were detected on power lines where the Lahaina blaze began. The company says all 70 of its sensors on Maui detected a major fault, but it was strongest near Lahaina.
  • Company knew risks but was slow to act. After high winds helped large wildfires spread on Maui in 2018 and 2019, Hawaiian Electric said it would take steps including installing insulated conductors to reduce the risk of sparks, but it failed to act and "made only passing reference to wildfire mitigation" in filings with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission over the next two years, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company didn't seek approval from regulators to raise rates to pay for wildfire mitigation until June last year. The company said there was an urgent need for the upgrades but it wouldn't start work until there was permission to raise rates.
  • Power lines weren't shut off. The company has been criticized for not shutting off power lines even as poles started to topple in high winds, the AP reports. The class-action lawsuit says the utility's own documents show that it knew shutoffs had helped prevent wildfires in California and elsewhere.

  • Lawsuit aims to prevent similar tragedies. Watts says the lawsuit filed Wednesday, one of at least four that were filed after the fire, aims to ensure that Hawaii never experiences another tragedy like this again. "Their own papers say they knew how to prevent it, and their own papers showed their conscious and deliberate decision to delay the implementation of safety measures that would have prevented this tragedy—the most deadly wildfire in American history," he says, per NBC.
  • Company's share price has plummeted. Hawaiian Electric, which has defended its decision not to shut off power lines, is "reeling" financially after the fire, the Journal reports. Its share price has fallen more than 60% and the S&P Global has downgraded its credit rating to junk.
(More Hawaii wildfires stories.)

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