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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hawaiian Electric draws scrutiny in search for what sparked deadly wildfire

Dylan Martin watches the sunset towards Lahaina while camping in Paul Romero’s backyard in Kihei, Hawaii, Aug. 13, 2023. Martin lost his home in Lahaina to the wildfire and Romero has offered space for him and others to sleep at his home.

By Peter Eavis, Ivan Penn and Thomas Fuller

In the hunt to determine what caused the fire that consumed Lahaina, the focus has increasingly turned to Hawaii’s biggest power utility — and whether the company did enough to prevent a wildfire in the high winds that swept over Maui last week.

Lawyers for Lahaina residents suing the utility, Hawaiian Electric, contend that its power equipment was not strong enough to withstand strong winds, and that the company should have shut down power before the winds came. Wildfire experts who have studied the catastrophic fires in California over the past two decades also see shortcomings in Hawaiian Electric’s actions.

Nearly a week after the wildfire tore through the island town of Lahaina, state and local officials have not determined a cause for the blaze that killed at least 99 people. But the explosive conditions were similar to those elsewhere in the country where wildfires were sparked by electrical equipment: dry brush, high winds and aging infrastructure.

Many wildfires in the United States occur when poles owned by utilities or other structures carrying power lines are blown down, or when branches or other objects land on power lines and cause them to produce high-energy flashes of electricity that can start fires. That is why utilities in California and other states have at times shut down power in recent years before strong winds arrive.

The National Weather Service expected winds of up to 45 mph last Tuesday, with gusts of 60 mph — conditions that were amplified by Hurricane Dora, which traveled across the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles to the south.

“We allege that many of the regulatory laws that require maintenance of equipment were broken,” said James Frantz, CEO of the Frantz Law Group, one of several law firms taking action against Hawaiian Electric. “There’s got to be some accountability.” He said his firm was representing five Lahaina residents who were filing lawsuits in a Hawaiian state court Monday.

Shares in Hawaiian Electric lost over a third of their value Monday, a sign that investors feared that the company would have to pay out large sums to settle lawsuits filed by homeowners and businesses, and spend enormous amounts to try to fireproof its operations.

“The issue becomes whether they did everything they could that was reasonable to prevent this incident,” said Shahriar Pourreza, an analyst who covers Hawaiian Electric’s stock for Guggenheim Securities. “Was there gross negligence, was there imprudence?”

Hawaiian Electric, established in 1891, operates on Maui through its subsidiary, Maui Electric, and is tiny compared with the Californian utilities that have paid huge wildfire settlements. Its revenue last year totaled $3.7 billion, compared with $21.7 billion at Pacific Gas & Electric of California. Like most other utilities, Hawaiian Electric operates under the scrutiny of public commissioners who have to approve its spending plans.

“As has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation,” Jim Kelly, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric, said in a statement. “Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined, and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center, a firm based in Hawaii that provides disaster-related analysis, said Saturday that more than 2,000 structures had been damaged or destroyed by the recent fires on Maui. And they estimated that it would cost $5.52 billion to rebuild. Pourreza said in a research note that there was a scenario in which Hawaiian Electric’s liability from the fire could exceed $4 billion. It had $314 million in cash at the end of June.

Preemptive power shutdowns are unpopular, because of how disruptive they can be to individuals and businesses. But wildfire experts say that they are a necessary measure, and, with planning, they can be deployed in such a way that they don’t prevent emergency services from operating during the blackout.

“It keeps people safe,” said Michael Wara, a scholar focused on climate and energy policy at Stanford University.

Lightning strikes have been another common source of ignition for wildfires in the Western United States. While not definitive, satellite-based lightning detectors operated by NASA did not indicate lightning activity on Hawaii last Monday or Tuesday.

Local and state officials have said little about what might have caused the fire that eventually engulfed Lahaina on the afternoon of Aug. 8. Earlier that day, Maui County said it had completely contained a small brush fire that was first reported that morning, but later announced at 4:45 p.m. that “an apparent flareup” had forced the closure of one main road and sudden evacuations.

Data from Whisker Labs, a private company that monitors the electrical grid in cities across the country looking for problems that might spark a home fire, appears to show significant faults — or major incidents — on power lines near where the Tuesday morning blaze is believed to have started.

On the night of Aug. 7 and into the early morning hours, its data showed, power lines began losing voltage, which can happen when vegetation interferes with wires, lines touch power poles or electrical equipment malfunctions.

The company said it had almost 1,000 sensors in Hawaii and about 70 on Maui. A major fault was felt by all sensors on the island, but was strongest near Lahaina, Whisker Labs found.

And it was a full eight seconds, “which is an eternity in electrical grid time,” said Bob Marshall, co-founder and chief executive of Whisker Labs, based in Germantown, Maryland. “Something on the grid was very unhappy for eight seconds and trying to recover from a shock.”

Hawaiian Electric, through Kelly, declined to comment on Whisker Labs’ data and findings.

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