By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER and GENE JOHNSON
HONOLULU (AP) — Maui County sued Hawaiian Electric Company on Thursday over the fires that devastated Lahaina, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.
Witness accounts and video indicated that sparks from power lines ignited fires as utility poles snapped in the winds, which were driven by a passing hurricane. The Aug. 8 fire killed at least 115 people and left an unknown number of others missing.
A spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Had the utility heeded weather service “warnings and de-energized their powerlines during the predicted high-wind gusts, this destruction could have been avoided,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said 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 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.”
The lawsuit notes other utilities, such as Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric, have all implemented Public Safety Power Shutoffs during during high wind events and said the “severe and catastrophic losses … could have easily been prevented” if Hawaiian Electric had a similar shutoff plan.
The county said it is seeking compensation for damage to public property and resources in Lahaina as well as nearby Kula.
Other utilities have been found liable for devastating fires recently.
In June, a jury in Oregon found the electric utility PacifiCorp responsible for causing devastating fires during Labor Day weekend in 2020, ordering the company to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and finding it liable for broader damages that could push the total award into the billions.
Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after its neglected equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings and virtually razed the town of Paradise, California.