Hawaiian Electric pushes back on claims of negligence after Maui wildfires

Utility company rejects Maui County lawsuit accusing it of contributing to deadly blazes that tore through communities.

Linemen working on power lines in Hawaii
Linemen work on poles on August 13, 2023 following a deadly wildfire that caused heavy damage in Lahaina, Hawaii, the United States [File: Rick Bowmer/AP Photo]

The Hawaiian Electric utility company has said that it shut off power lines in west Maui more than six hours before a series of wildfires began in early August, pushing back against claims that company negligence helped create the conditions that led to widespread destruction.

On Monday, Hawaiian Electric called a lawsuit filed by the County of Maui against the company “factually and legally irresponsible”.

The utility also accused county authorities of failing to contain the fires that killed at least 115 people, displaced hundreds more, and burned the historic community of Lahaina to the ground.

“We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court even before completing its own investigation,” said Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric.

As Hawaii copes with the aftermath of the deadliest wildfire in more than a century in the United States, the state’s utility company has faced accusations that it failed to promptly shut off power in areas experiencing high winds, a method commonly employed during high fire risk.

Such claims and counterclaims fit a familiar pattern that plays out after lethal fires, as communities and officials try to parse out complex chains of events and hold those responsible for perceived failures accountable.

Utility companies across the US have faced persistent scrutiny amid allegations that negligence contributed to deadly wildfires, such as failing to trim vegetation around power lines or update vulnerable infrastructure.

In May, the California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) agreed to pay $150m in a settlement over its role in the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people.

PG&E has been blamed for dozens of other fires in California, including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people as it swept through the town of Paradise.

The utility reached a $13.5bn settlement in that case, pleading guilty to more than 80 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The County of Maui sued Hawaiian Electric last week, alleging that the utility failed to shut down power despite hurricane-force winds that could knock down power lines and start a fire.

On Monday, the utility countered that the county had made missteps itself, and that a fire sparked by a fallen power line was declared “100% contained” and later “extinguished” by the Maui County Department of Fire & Public Safety.

The utility says that another fire began in the same area more than six hours after it had shut off power, and it then spread out of control and descended on Lahaina.

John Fiske, a lawyer representing Maui County in the lawsuit, said that “to the extent [Hawaiian Electric] has information of a second ignition source, [it] should offer that evidence now”.

“The ultimate responsibility rests with [the company] to de-energize, ensure its equipment and systems are properly maintained, and ensure downed power lines are not re-energized,” Fiske said.

On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that the utility had removed damaged power poles and other equipment from a fire scene in Lahaina around August 12, potentially compromising evidence that is part of an investigation.

The equipment was removed “before investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived on scene”, the newspaper said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies