Maui Electric pushing back on fire responsibility accusations and bringing receipts

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

This could get very interesting. In the disgusting heap of whodunit, finger pointing, and incompetence that is the Maui/Lahaina tragedy, everybody’s favorite whipping boy just threw a wrench in the plans to blackball them.

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Maui County filed a lawsuit last Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company, claiming they’d started the cataclysmic fire through negligence.

Maui County filed a lawsuit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries, alleging that the utility company’s negligence caused the devastating wildfires that burned thousands of acres of land in the state and killed more than 100 people earlier this month.

The lawsuit alleges that the electric company, known as HECO, “inexcusably kept their power lines energized” in early August, despite the fact that the National Weather Service issued a High Wind Watch and a Fire Warning. The warnings cautioned that strong winds could knock down power lines and ignite a fire that would spread quickly due to dry conditions, the lawsuit indicated.

…This is the first time an entity of the Hawaiian government has formally accused the utility company of playing a role in the deadliest US fire in more than a century.

HECO is also the subject of a proposed class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month that accused the electric company of choosing not to “deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground.”

There have been some pretty damning videos of lines on the ground and fires in the area near them, but today Hawaiian Electric said, “That wasn’t us.” And dropped a bombshell about the power running through the lines.

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Hawaiian Electric said Monday that its power lines weren’t responsible for the wildfire that destroyed the town of Lahaina, killing at least 115 people, and blamed Maui County firefighters for an inadequate response.

The company made the statements in a public response to a lawsuit filed last week by Maui County that blamed Hawaiian Electric, the local electric utility known as HECO, for the blaze, and sought damages for costs the local government has incurred.

According to HECO, a fire that started early in the morning of Aug. 8 was caused by its power lines that fell in high winds, but that blaze was declared extinguished by firefighters before they left the scene at 2 p.m. HECO workers arrived to make repairs that afternoon and saw no smoke or embers.

The utility company said its power lines had been shut off for more than six hours before its workers, who were in the area to make repairs, saw a new fire shortly before 3 p.m. and called 911 to report it.

According to the power company, they’d gotten to the scene of the 6:30 morning fire with firefighters, and gotten the power shut off right then. Linemen stayed in the area until the fire crews got the fire under control and declared it extinguished.

Later, HECO crews returned to repair the damaged poles from the morning, and, while in the middle of repairing and clearing that, they spotted another fire breaking out in a nearby field.

The company says electricity had never been turned back on.

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Hawaiian Electric said power lines appear to have caused the brush fire that started at 6:30 a.m. local time at the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street in the historic town. The small fire near the downed poles spread into a field near Lahaina Intermediate School.

…Hawaiian Electric crews repairing the downed poles later saw a fire around 3 p.m. about 75 yards away in the field near Lahaina Intermediate School and immediately reported it to authorities, according to the company.

Hawaiian Electric said the power had been off for hours when the crew witnessed that second fire in the field. By the time the county fire department responded to the afternoon fire, they were unable to contain the blaze as it spread out of control toward Lahaina, according to the company.

That could be a horse of a different color.

Residents in the area are convinced it was the first fire which reignited, and then took off on a destructive, raging path towards Lahaina proper.

…Residents said the embers from the morning fire had reignited and the fire raced toward downtown Lahaina. Treu’s neighbor Robert Arconado recorded video of it spreading at 3:06 p.m., as large plumes of smoke rise near Lahainaluna Road and are carried downtown by the wind.

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Whatever people believe was the cause of the second blaze at 3 pm, HECO says it has the receipts as far as shutting the juice down and leaving it off.

…Hawaiian Electric has informed the ATF that it has records to demonstrate that no electricity was flowing through its wires when the second fire broke out, according to the company.

Maui County should have schmaybe been a little more circumspect in the blame game, before flinging legal papers. Perhaps an investigation first? Even if the first fire reignited, the fire crews said it was out – they’re the experts on scene. Electrical crews don’t make those decisions – fire professionals make those call. And HECO did NOT start electrical power back up in the face of the winds and conditions.

There’s definitely the possibility for some shared culpability there at the very least, no? Throw in no water to fight fires, no emergency sirens, roadblocks, etc, on top of it all?

I’ll bet the county thought it sounded great to be able pin the fire itself on someone right out of the box.

Sometimes the obvious villain is too good to be true.

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