A brush fire on Saturday has caused Maui authorities to evacuate residents from Lahaina neighborhoods. The new fire is only a few miles from the site recently devastated by blazes.
A directive to evacuate a residential zone in the hills above the Kaanapali resort hotels was issued by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
The notice specifically targeted the vicinity around Anapuni Loop and was announced on X, the social network previously known as Twitter.
Subsequently, Maui County reported via Instagram that firefighters had “stopped forward progress of the fire.”
The total number of individuals impacted by the evacuation was not immediately available.
This comes on the heels of a destructive fire on August 8, which resulted in the deaths of at least 115 people and the loss of 2,000 structures in downtown Lahaina. There are still over a thousand missing, many feared dead, including hundreds of children.
Factors contributing to that earlier fire included strong trade winds, partially driven by Hurricane Dora, which had passed about 500 miles (800 kilometers) to Maui’s south.
The Associated Press reported on Saturday that a peculiar pattern of simultaneous flames erupted in straight rows in the initial stages of the Maui wildfires. This was due to high winds toppling power poles, causing “electrified wires to slap against the dry grass below.” These wires were bare, uninsulated metal capable of sparking upon contact.
Pre-fire Google Street View images also displayed these poles with their uninsulated wires.
The AP, after examining various videos and images, verified that these exposed wires were part of extensive stretches of line that Hawaiian Electric Co. had left unprotected from the elements and vegetation. This was in contrast to utilities in other regions prone to wildfires and hurricanes, which have been actively insulating or burying their lines.
Adding to the issue, many of the utility’s 60,000 power poles, primarily made of wood and constructed to “an obsolete 1960s standard,” were in a precarious state. These poles were tilting and nearing the end of their expected lifespans, and were far from meeting the 2002 national standard requiring key elements of Hawaii’s electrical grid to withstand winds of up to 105 miles per hour.
The company admitted in a 2019 filing that it had lagged in updating these aging wooden poles, citing other priorities, and cautioned that their failure would result in a “serious public hazard.”
Michael Ahern, the recently-retired director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, commented that it’s “very unlikely” that fully-insulated cables would have ignited dry vegetation.
Industry experts, after viewing footage of fallen power lines, concurred that insulated wires would not have arced and sparked, thus preventing a fire from igniting in a line.
In a statement, Hawaiian Electric tried to blame climate change. However, the company did not specify whether the power lines that failed in the initial moments of the fire were of the bare, uninsulated type.
“We’ve been executing on a resilience strategy to meet these challenges, and since 2018, we have spent approximately $950 million to strengthen and harden our grid and approximately $110 million on vegetation management efforts,” the company said. “This work included replacing more than 12,500 poles and structures since 2018 and trimming and removing trees along approximately 2,500 line miles every year on average.”
But Jennifer Potter, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, confirmed many of Maui’s wooden power poles were in poor condition.
“Even tourists that drive around the island are like, ‘What is that?’ They’re leaning quite significantly because the winds over time literally just pushed them over,” she said. “That obviously is not going to withstand 60, 70 mile per hour winds. So the infrastructure was just not strong enough for this kind of windstorm … The infrastructure itself is just compromised.”
John Morgan, a personal injury and trial attorney in Florida who lives part-time on Maui, is leading a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric.