The Hawaii utility has acknowledged the growing danger of wildfires and made some changes. But lawsuits are already pointing to the live power lines as a cause in Maui.

Hawaiian Electric Co., whose transmission lines run all across Maui, did not shut down the power in Lahaina ahead of this week’s deadly and devastating fires, a technique has been used in California and other places prone to wildfires.

Nor did the utility have a formal plan to shut down large parts of the grid, according to company officials.

The company said it did take other, more limited steps to deal with the fierce winds and red flag warning of extreme fire weather.

Nonetheless, some 29 fully energized poles fell across roads in West Maui that day. While it’s still not clear what caused the fires that began Tuesday, hitting Lahaina hardest, authorities have said those poles stifled access to the fire zone and prevented many from evacuating.

A HECO sub-power station is photographed Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A HECO sub-power station was damaged in the fire that blazed through Lahaina on Thursday. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Some utility companies in fire-prone states, such as Pacific Gas & Electric in California, have implemented the type of power shut-down protocols that HECO lacked in recent years following its own devastating wildfires. Those measures aim to better protect communities against wildfire threats.

“There should have been greater alarms raised” for HECO to implement its own shut-down program, said Jennifer Potter, a former Hawaii Public Utilities Commission member and Lahaina resident. That plan should have been a priority given the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires on Maui during the past five years, she said.

“We did not follow best practices,” Potter said.

However, HECO isn’t the only one to blame for that lack of foresight, Potter said. She also pointed to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates HECO and which she sat on until she resigned in October.

The commission, she said, should have pressed HECO and made a shut-down plan a bigger priority.

“Having plans in place to de-energize or action plans to respond to a fire after it’s occurred … those are things that we haven’t really developed in the state of Hawaii in order to address … some of these terrible and horrible events that we’re now seeing,” Potter said Saturday.

“I know that at the commission it’s something that we were aware of but we didn’t quite raise the alarm. There’s faults on all sides,” she added.

“The government failed to really observe what was happening during the last couple of years with this increased number of wildfires to make it a priority for the utilities to be very serious about policies that would address downed power lines that could potentially cause sparks and create wildfires.”

Authorities are still investigating precisely what caused the blaze that swiftly tore through Lahaina, killing scores of people.

A fire under a utility pole remains ignited Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Flames ignited under a utility pole in Lahaina, underscoring the danger. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In a statement Friday, HECO said shutting off the power in Lahaina on short notice would have required coordinating with first responders. The electricity powers the water pumps used by firefighters and the equipment for customers with special medical needs, the statement noted.

But Potter said that shouldn’t have stymied a shut-down plan for Hawaii, which could include back-up power to address those issues as well as moving vulnerable customers to safe sites.

HECO’s statement also said that most utilities don’t have such a shut-down plan. Potter said HECO should follow the best practices coming out of states such as California, which grapple with similar wildfire threats.

“To shrug off and say other utilities don’t have this either isn’t really taking responsibility or accountability for the lack of planning,” she said.

Prior to the winds, HECO did disable an automated system that allows for power circuits along the grid to reactivate automatically after a service interruption. This could prevent downed lines from continuing to spark.

HECO Wanted PUC Approval For Wildfire Mitigation

Prior to the Lahaina fire, HECO had in recent years submitted plans to the PUC to make its grid more resilient against wildfires and climate change, but Potter said some of those plans didn’t go far enough.

HECO says in one PUC filing that it began wildfire mitigation activities in 2019. As part of modernizing the grid, HECO planned to deploy devices such as smart fuses to minimize sparks. It wanted to replace copper conductors with aluminum in places most prone to wildfire because copper can become brittle and riskier.

Its plan for Maui relied heavily on overhead drone surveillance of infrastructure, according to Potter.

“There’s concerns with that — was there a high-enough priority to dedicate the resources to evaluate the … resilience of the grid?” she said. “Did we fully understand what the dangers were? I don’t think we did.”

The company submitted a request to the PUC in 2022 to make the grid more resilient against climate change.

The utility, which serves 95% of the state’s population with 9,400 miles of power lines, proposed $189.7 million of improvements to deal with climate change threats across the state, including removing hazardous trees and wildfire prevention and mitigation. The project would have cost customers anywhere from 33 cents to 86 cents a month, depending on where they lived.

“The need to adapt to climate change is undeniable and urgent,” the application stated.

It details threats to the power grid from wildfires, but also the potential that the power lines could spark wildfires.

“It wasn’t on the front burner for them,” Potter said.

The initiative included preventing wildfires and enabling quicker responses when they did occur. “The risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant. For example, the PG&E ignition of the 2018 Camp Fire that tore through the town of Paradise resulted in a $15 billion settlement. As such, wildfire ignition mitigation has become a regulatory requirement in California and in Australia,” it stated.

The process of burying lines underground “is being aggressively pursued in both Florida and Virginia for storm hardening, and in California for wildfire mitigation.”

The devastating fires in California led the company to review wildfire mitigation plans of three California electric utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to see what could be relevant considering Hawaii’s environment and weather. HECO also looked at potential wildfire areas on the major islands.

Lawyers Are Getting Involved

Meanwhile, a group of Honolulu- and California-based law firms filed a class action suit Saturday against HECO on behalf of victims and survivors of the Lahaina fire.

The suit alleges that HECO’s downed power lines caused the fire. Graham Lippsmith of the firm Lippsmith LLP said Saturday that the suit was also largely based on HECO’s decision not to de-energize the power Tuesday in West Maui.

A separate Honolulu attorney also said Saturday that his firm is weighing whether to sue HECO on behalf of its clients, also largely based on the downed poles.

Mark Davis of the firm Davis Levin Livingston said Saturday that his firm is already working closely with people who investigated deadly California wildfires that were found to be sparked by to Pacific Gas and Electric power lines.

Davis said that his firm has heard accounts from Lahaina that the downed poles were like “electric fences blocking escape routes.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read the class action complaint here:

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