Maui County has sued the Hawaiian Electric company over the fires that devastated Lahaina, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.
The county filed the lawsuit on Thursday after saying that downed power lines started the wildfires that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina earlier this month, killing at least 115 people and displacing hundreds more.
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Witness accounts and videos from the wildfires indicated that sparks from power lines ignited fires as utility poles snapped in the winds, which were driven by a passing hurricane.
The subsequent fires, which tore through the area on August 8, were the deadliest in the United States in more than a century.
Lawsuit claims utility company could have prevented destruction
The lawsuit said the destruction could have been avoided and that the utility had a duty “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”.
The utility company knew that high winds “would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate.”
Utility company ‘disappointed’ county chose ‘litigious path’
Hawaiin Electric said in a statement it is “very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding”.
Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95 percent of Hawaii’s electricity customers.
It is also facing several lawsuits from Lahaina residents as well as one from some of its own investors, who accused it of fraud in a federal lawsuit on Thursday, saying it failed to disclose that its wildfire prevention and safety measures were inadequate.
Maui County’s lawsuit notes other utilities, such as Southern California Edison company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric, have procedures for shutting off power during bad windstorms and said the “severe and catastrophic losses … could have easily been prevented” if Hawaiian Electric had a similar shutoff plan.
“Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County,” Hawaiian Electric’s statement said.
A deadly combination: Drought, winds and blocked roads
A drought in the region had left plants, including invasive grasses, dangerously dry. As Hurricane Dora passed roughly 500 miles (800 kilometres) south of Hawaii, strong winds toppled at least 30 power poles in West Maui.
A video shot by a Lahaina resident shows a downed power line setting dry grasses alight.
Firefighters initially contained that fire, but then left to attend to other calls, and residents said the fire later reignited and raced towards downtown Lahaina.
With downed power lines and police or utility crews blocking some roads, traffic reached a standstill along Lahaina’s Front Street.
The island-wide warning network was also not activated, a decision that is believed to have cost lives and led to the recent resignation of the head of Maui’s emergency management agency.
Many residents jumped into the water off Maui as they tried to escape the flaming debris and overheated black smoke enveloping downtown Lahaina.
Dozens of searchers in snorkelling gear this week have been combing a 4-mile (6.4km) stretch of water for signs of anyone who might have perished. Crews are also still painstakingly searching for remains among the ashes of destroyed businesses and multi-storey residential buildings.