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Hawaiian Electric denies sparking deadly Maui blaze

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Maui power company Hawaiian Electric says the county’s lawsuit accusing the utility’s power lines of sparking the most deadly U.S. wildfire in over a century is “factually and legally irresponsible,” claiming the blaze that destroyed Lahaina was not a fire it might have started but one that spread later.

The utility issued a defiant statement this week saying that although its lines may have caused an earlier fire in Lahaina on Aug. 8, that blaze was put out by firefighters. Hawaiian Electric refers to a separate “afternoon” fire that ignited in the same place after the fire department declared the earlier blaze contained.

Hawaiian Electric’s statement conflicts with accounts of residents who live near the Lahainaluna substation and were home for both blazes, as well as the findings of Maui officials, who allege in their lawsuit that it was the earlier fire that destroyed the community. And an interview with the Maui fire chief posted on YouTube that the utility says backs its case does not appear to clear Hawaiian Electric. In it, the fire chief says the fire that burned Lahaina may have been the same one the utility now says its power lines could have started.

In its statement, Hawaiian Electric alleges that fire department incompetence led to the destruction of Lahaina, not its own neglect.

The claims from Hawaiian Electric come as the utility is fighting for its survival, confronting the potential of billions of dollars in liabilities for the fire that killed at least 115 people, with another 388 still reported missing. The Maui lawsuit accusing the utility of negligence, filed on Thursday, compounded the utility’s problems following a stock sell-off by investors and crippling downgrades by credit rating agencies.

Wells Fargo alerted clients in a research note Friday that “bankruptcy reorganization is still perhaps the most plausible path” for the company given its financial troubles stemming from the fire and the lawsuits that have followed.

Hawaii utility faces collapse as others delay on extreme weather risks

But the company’s positioning to fight at least the Maui allegations encouraged investors, who in trading Monday morning pushed the stock price up more than 30 percent. The shares were still trading at a fraction of their price before the fire.

“We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court even before completing its own investigation,” said a statement from Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura. “We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible. … 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 company said that there was no electricity flowing anywhere on the West Maui coast when the fire that burned Lahaina ignited, and said it has alerted federal investigators that it has records backing up that finding. The utility said a “small fire” that its lines may have started was declared fully contained by the fire department.

Hawaiian Electric crews, according to the company’s statement, were doing repair work later in the day when they saw another fire had ignited in the same spot, at which time they called 911. Power lines, according to the company, had been “de-energized” for more than six hours when that second fire began.

“To the extent HECO [Hawaiian Electric] has information of a second ignition source, HECO should offer that evidence now,” said John Fiske, an attorney for the county. “The ultimate responsibility rests with HECO to de-energize, ensure its equipment and systems are properly maintained, and ensure downed power lines are not re-energized.”

The lawsuit the county filed on Thursday says the fire that burned the city of Lahaina stemmed from the early-morning blaze Hawaiian Electric acknowledges may have been sparked by its power lines. The county accuses company officials of acting recklessly amid warnings that extreme weather threatening to topple utility poles and spread wildfire was bearing down.

The lawsuit also points to Hawaiian Electric’s failure to put in place a system to automatically shut off power lines in the event of high fire risk, as several utilities in wildfire-prone areas of California and Oregon have done.

Brianna Sacks contributed to this report.



POST AUTHOR: Evan Halper

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