Did Hawaiian utility lines cause disaster? Or climate change?
As they so often do following a tragedy, anger and blame have begun to bubble in Hawaii over who—or what—is responsible for the deadly wildfires that killed 116 people earlier this month on the island of Maui. Predictably, plenty of liberal news outlets were quick to chalk it up to climate change, while on the ground, utilities are being sued for negligence.
The County of Maui filed a lawsuit against Maui Electric Company, Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Hawaiʻi Electric Light Company, Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. for civil damages caused to the County’s public property and resources caused by recent Maui fires, including fires in Lāhainā and in Kula. The lawsuit was filed in the Second Circuit Court and the case number is 2CCV-23-0000238.
In response, at least one of those utilities quickly pushed back. Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., released a statement August 27 taking responsibility for certain aspects of the fires, but also claiming the lawsuit was "irresponsible."
Hawaiian Electric, a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc., issued the following update in response to the lawsuit filed on Thursday by the County of Maui:
"Our hearts and hands are with the people of Lahaina and Maui," said Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric. "Hawaii has thrived on the collective strength and unity of our community, and we need to embrace that spirit now more than ever. There are important lessons to be learned from this tragedy by all of us collectively, and we are resolved to figure out what we need to do to keep our communities safe as climate issues rapidly intensify here and around the globe. We invite others to do the same with us."
Hawaiian Electric added that "several important facts are clear about the events on Aug. 8:
A fire at 6:30 a.m. (the "Morning Fire") appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.
The Maui County Fire Department responded to this fire, reported it was "100% contained," left the scene and later declared it had been "extinguished."
At about 3 p.m., a time when all of Hawaiian Electric's power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours, a second fire (the "Afternoon Fire") began in the same area.
The cause of the devastating Afternoon Fire has not been determined."
"We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court even before completing its own investigation," Kimura said. "We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible. It is inconsistent with the path that we believe we should pursue as a resilient community committed and accountable to each other as well as to Hawaii's future. We continue to stand ready to work to that end with our communities and others. Unfortunately, the county's lawsuit may leave us no choice in the legal system but to show its responsibility for what happened that day."
The lawsuit alleges that the Defendants acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th. The lawsuit further alleges HECO’s energized and downed power lines ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires. The lawsuit also alleges failure to maintain the system and power grid, which caused the systemic failures starting three different fires on August 8th.
Maui County stands alongside the people and communities of Lāhainā and Kula to recover public resource damages and rebuild after these devastating utility-caused fires. These damages include losses to public infrastructure, fire response costs, losses to revenues, increased costs, environmental damages, and losses of historical or cultural landmarks.
HECO is a for-profit, investor-owned utility that trades publicly on the New York Stock Exchange serving 95% of the Hawai’i customer base.
The fires in Lāhainā and Kula burned over 3,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,200 structures, causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage or more.