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Maui County sues company over wildfire

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | China Daily | Updated: 2023-08-28 07:14

FILE PHOTO: A view of burned debris after wildfires devastated the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, US, August 10, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

Electric utility accused of 'inexcusably' ignoring warnings and causing disaster

In the aftermath of the catastrophic wildfire that ravaged the historic Maui town of Lahaina, Hawaii, Maui County is suing the public utility company Hawaiian Electric.

The county accuses the company of "inexcusably" not shutting off power despite clear warnings of imminent high winds, and not maintaining equipment and surrounding vegetation to "properly ensure that they would not cause a fire".

The lawsuit attributes the disaster, which resulted in 115 confirmed deaths, to the company's "intentional and malicious" mismanagement of power lines.

It said Hawaiian Electric acted negligently by failing to power down its equipment despite a National Weather Service red flag warning on Aug 7, the day before the fires started. The warning means warm temperatures, very low humidity and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.

The company faces at least nine lawsuits for its role in allegedly sparking the Maui wildfires, including the one that destroyed 80 percent of Lahaina.

The company said it was "disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding".

The Washington Post reported on Friday that documents show the company hauled away fallen poles, power lines, transformers, conductors and other equipment from near a Lahaina substation starting around Aug 12, before investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived at the scene.

Those actions may have violated national guidelines on how utilities should handle and preserve evidence after a wildfire and could potentially affect the investigation into how the fire was started, the Post reported.

The number of people missing in the wildfire was originally put at more than 1,000. Now it has been adjusted to 388 — all of them named.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said on Thursday, when names were made public, that it "will cause pain for folks whose loved ones are listed". It was not an easy thing to do, he said, but was necessary to make the investigation as complete and thorough as possible.

The hope is that many on the list are fine and simply have not checked with emergency personnel. The fear is that many are not.

Within a day of Maui County publishing the 388 names, more than 100 of them or their relatives came forward to say they are safe, the FBI said on Friday. The agency is reviewing the information they provided and working to remove the names from the list.

"We're very thankful for the people who have reached out by phone or email," said Steven Merrill, the FBI's special agent in charge in Honolulu. "As we get someone off of a list, this has enabled us to devote more resources to those who are still on the list."

Officials said an additional 1,732 people who had originally been reported as unaccounted for had since been "found safe and well".

The list naming the 388 missing people does not include additional identifying information, such as age or gender. The county said the list, compiled by the FBI, consists of those for whom authorities have a first and last name and the contact number of the person who reported the person missing.

The list is the first of its kind for unaccounted people since the wildfire in Lahaina on Aug 8. It was fanned by the winds of a cyclone churning hundreds of kilometers away and fueled by recent heat and drought conditions.

The number of confirmed deaths has not changed, at 115. Officials had identified the remains of 46 of the 115 by Thursday, the Maui Police Department said. The families of 35 of the 46 identified victims have been notified.

The list of identified victims included a family whose remains were found in a burned car near their home. Among them was the first child victim, Tony Takafua, 7, the county said. It is feared that many of the victims were children.

More than two weeks after the flames swept through the county, the search for remains in the ashes of Lahaina, now the site of the country's deadliest wildfire in a century, continues.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams with cadaver dogs trained to identify the scent of human decomposition have finished searching one-story homes and businesses and have moved to multi-story structures, some of which collapsed.

Officials have urged relatives of people who are unaccounted for to provide DNA samples to help analysts identify remains that have been recovered.

'Igniting dry fuel'

The county's lawsuit alleges the downed and energized power lines "ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires".

A video posted online showed that downed power lines were making crackling sounds on dry grass, and a fire started while residents were watching and shouting in surprise.

On Aug 14 the President of Hawaiian Electric, Shelee Kimura, said it does not have a de-energization program in place, and cutting off power would have affected water systems in a fire.

Powering down the grid can endanger people, she said.

"It can be seen as creating a hardship for those customers that have medical needs and are at higher risk. These programs, particularly, for elder or other vulnerable people who have specialized medical equipment, this can be a very high risk for them."

Kimura said that even in places where powering down has been carried out it is a controversial and not universally accepted measure.

Hawaiian Electric serves 95 percent of the state's residents. Its stock were down more than 70 percent to $9.58 on Friday, from $35.58 on Aug 8.

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