First Individual Maui Wildfire Lawsuit Against Hawaiian Utilities Filed
Lawyers who are investigating the cause of apocalyptic Maui wildfires assert that the blaze was the result of damaged equipment owned by Hawaiian Electric.
“All evidence — videos, witness accounts, burn progression, and utility equipment remaining — points to Hawaiian Electric’s equipment being the ignition source of the fire that devastated Lahaina,” Mikal Watts, whose Watts Guerra firm is among three investigating the fire, told Bloomberg.
Singleton Schreiber and Frantz Law Group firms agreed, saying their probes have reached the same conclusion — that Hawaiian Electric’s damaged infrastructure sparked the flames that destroyed the resort city of Lahaina last week.
Hawaiian Electric, which serves 95% of the state’s residents, said in a statement it has yet to determine the cause of the fires since much of the area remains closed off following the deadliest US wildfire for over a century.
Hawaiian Electric did not deploy what’s known as a “public power shutoff plan,” which involves intentionally cutting off electricity to areas where big wind events could spark fires.
A number of states, including California, have increasingly adopted this safety strategy after what were then the nation’s most destructive and deadliest modern fires, in 2017 and 2018.
Hawaiian Electric was aware that a power shut-off was an effective strategy, documents show, but had not adopted it as part of its fire mitigation plans, according to the company and two former power and energy officials interviewed by The Washington Post. Nor, in the face of predicted dangerous winds, did it act on its own, utility officials said, fearing uncertain consequences.
The decision to avoid shutting off power is reflective of the utility’s struggles to bolster its aging and vulnerable infrastructure against wildfires, said Jennifer Potter, who lives in Lahaina and was a member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission until just nine months ago.
Singleton Schreiber has now filed the first lawsuit on behalf of an individual against Hawaiian Electric Industries, Hawai’i Electric Light Company, and Maui Electric Company.
The complaint alleges multiple instances of negligence, trespass, and nuisance as contributing factors of the Lahaina Fire in West Maui. The fire burned through homes, businesses, places of worship, historic sites, and more, devastating the island in an unprecedented manner. It was deemed the worst fire in the United States in more than 100 years just due to the lives lost. The Maui Emergency Management Agency estimates that it will cost $5.52 billion to rebuild.
…According to the complaint, the defendants were warned about the extreme threat of wildfires as early as August 6, 2023. They also knew that deenergizing powerlines is a proven method to prevent wildfires. Still, they either left their powerlines energized or, after deenergizing them, re-energized them too soon.
The following factors also contributed to the poorly made decisions of the utility companies:
- The nature of their utility infrastructure, which was intended, designed, and constructed to pass electricity through exposed powerlines in vegetated areas.
- Failure to maintain the proper tension in their lines to prevent sagging, which is proven to lead to fires.
- Failure to implement proper vegetation management programs to protect their lines against trees crashing into them during high winds.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the wildfires has risen to 99, and approximately 1,000 people remain missing.
Firefighters in Maui continue to work around the clock to contain the fire that is now officially the deadliest in modern US history, as other inspectors and cadaver dogs continue to probe the ashen town of Lahaina.
The harsh conditions have made search and recovery difficult and recovery teams have only covered approximately 3 percent of the search area, they are expected to continue their efforts this week.
…Many of the remains are so badly burned that families have been invited to provide DNA swabs that could help identify the victims. Authorities have created the Maui County Family Assistance Center to help collect samples.
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