Why Hawaii Is Investigating Hawaii Power in Maui Fires

It could be months before authorities identify the cause of last week’s fire on Maui. But some plaintiffs’ lawyers and investors have already begun blaming Hawaii Electric, the state’s largest utility.

One of the possible sources of the fire, which claimed the lives of more than 100 people, was the utility’s electrical lines and equipment – and the death toll is expected to rise once more than 1,000 people are still missing.

Prosecutors have filed at least four lawsuits against the company. The lawsuits contend the company was negligent in the operation and maintenance of its equipment. Among other things, prosecutors say the utility should have shut off power to prevent its lines from starting fires during periods of high winds and droughts, a practice used in California.

Those lawsuits have spooked Wall Street traders, who fear they won’t be able to accept liability claims that could add up to billions of dollars. Hawaiian Electric’s stock price has fallen about 68 percent since Thursday, Aug. 7, to around $12, the day before the wildfires started.

Attention turned to utility soon after the fire, with videos and photos posted online by people on Maui showing power lines on fire. In addition, Whisker Labs, a private company that monitors power grids across the country for problems that could cause house fires, appears to identify critical faults in power lines in areas where fires start.

Hawaiian Electric declined to comment further on the fire. But Shelley Kimura, the company’s chief executive, said at a press conference on Monday that the company has no plans to shut off power early to prevent wildfires. Such a plan would require coordination with emergency personnel, he said. The power outages will leave people unable to use medical equipment, water pipes and other essential equipment.

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β€œIn Lahaina, electricity powers the pumps that deliver the water β€” and that was a critical need at the time,” Ms. Kimura said.

Hawaiian Electric isn’t the first company to draw attention after a major wildfire. Aging utility equipment has often been blamed in recent years for igniting devastating fires when it comes into contact with dry vegetation, especially in high winds.

California’s largest electric utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, is in a similar position many times over. State officials have identified one of its power lines as part of the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Wildfire liability forced PG&E to seek bankruptcy protection; The company eventually agreed to pay $13.5 billion to settle fire claims.

But there are some important differences between California and Hawaii. California law easily holds utilities liable for wildfires caused by their equipment, even if they are not determined to have been negligent. In Hawaii, plaintiffs must prove that Hawaii Electric Co. was negligent to hold the utility company liable.

“Despite the limited information so far, investors are considering the worst billion-dollar wildfire exposures other utility companies face,” Bank of America analysts wrote in a note to investors on Tuesday.

Hawaiian Electric knew the dangers of its equipment. In a petition filed with the state’s Public Utilities Commission last year, the company proposed upgrading the poles to withstand high winds and cut vegetation. The filing noted that Lahaina is a priority area. The company said it will take several years to complete the work.

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In addition to application decisions, officials will focus on invasive grasses on the slopes above Lahaina. Grasses introduced to Hawaii to feed livestock have taken over old sugar and pineapple plantations. Grasses grow quickly when it rains, but become fuel for fires during dry periods.

Hawaii’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said her office will conduct a “comprehensive review of critical decision-making and sustainable policies during and after the Maui wildfires.”

In a statement, Hawaii Electric said it was “working with the state and county to determine what happened.”

According to Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, investigations into the source of wildfires can take weeks to months. California officials took six months to conclude that the camp fire was caused by PG&E’s equipment.

Authorities are trying to determine the start of the fire by evaluating video evidence and interviewing witnesses. Investigators then look for clues that point to some common causes, such as lightning, downed power lines or campfires.

“That means integrating different types of evidence,” Mr. Frelich said.

He said such work can be difficult because many potential witnesses have been displaced or lost family members in the fire.

Susan C. the beach Contributed research and Peter Eavis Contributed report.

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