Maui County has launched a legal battle against Hawaiian Electric, accusing the utility of negligence in its handling of the catastrophic Lahaina wildfires. The county alleges that the company failed to deactivate its electrical equipment despite extreme weather conditions.
“This destruction could have been avoided,” the lawsuit said.
The electric utility knew that high winds “would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation,” the lawsuit claimed. “Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate.”
The legal action, submitted to Hawaii’s Second Circuit Court, accuses the electric firm of failing “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.”
Legal representatives contend that downed, energized power lines “ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires.” These fires erupted on August 8, resulting in a minimum of 115 deaths and the obliteration of over 2,200 buildings.
An extended drought had rendered vegetation, including “invasive grasses,” extremely dry. When Hurricane Dora moved about 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south of Hawaii, it caused strong winds that knocked down at least 30 power poles in West Maui. Footage captured by a resident of Lahaina depicted a fallen power line igniting the dry grass. Firefighters initially managed to contain the blaze but were called away to other incidents. Residents reported that the fire subsequently reignited and sped towards downtown Lahaina.
Due to the fallen power lines and blocked roads by police or utility personnel, traffic came to a halt on Lahaina’s Front Street. Several residents took desperate measures, leaping into the ocean off Maui to avoid the fiery debris and suffocating black smoke that filled the downtown area.
As it stands, the official death toll is 115, a figure that county officials anticipate will increase. Both the FBI and Maui County police are in the process of determining how many people are still missing. According to a statement from the FBI on Tuesday, there are between 1,000 and 1,100 names on an unconfirmed list of missing and suspected dead.
This week, teams of searchers equipped with snorkel gear have been scouring a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) section of the sea, looking for any signs of casualties. On land, search teams are meticulously sifting through the ashes of ruined businesses and multi-level residential buildings for remains.
The lawsuit also cites other utilities like Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric as benchmarks for implementing effective shut-off plans that mitigated damages and saved lives. It suggests that Hawaiian Electric should have done the same.
In a recent press briefing, Hawaiian Electric argued that Hawaii lacks a formalized shut-off protocol, unlike states such as California, Oregon, and Nevada.
Additionally, on August 12, residents of Lahaina initiated a class-action lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric for maintaining active power lines while the fires were erupting.
According to risk modeling firm Moody’s RMS, the fires inflicted economic damages ranging from $4 billion to $6 billion on the Lahaina and Kula communities in Hawaii.