In congressional testimony, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura confirmed what some already suspected — that the utility re-energized its lines just before an early morning fire.

The power was already out in West Maui at 5 a.m. on Aug. 8 and it could have stayed that way had Hawaiian Electric decided not to re-energize its lines. 

Instead, the company rebooted a tripped transmission line so that it could provide electricity to some of its customers in Lahaina despite an ongoing windstorm and repeated warnings of extreme fire danger.

The power came back on around 6 a.m. and within the hour a downed power line near the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hoohakuna Street sparked a blaze that may have been the origin of the deadly inferno that ripped through much of Lahaina and killed at least 99 people. Four others are still listed as missing by the Maui Police Department.

The Pioneer Mill smokestack stands after the Aug. 8 fires destroyed most of Lahaina. Photo taken Sept. 26, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Pioneer Mill smokestack stands after the Aug. 8 fires destroyed most of Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The details about Hawaiian Electric’s early morning actions on Aug. 8 were spelled out in newly released written testimony from the company’s president and CEO, Shelee Kimura, who was responding to questions from a congressional oversight committee investigating the fires. 

Kimura testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September.  

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, chairman of the oversight subcommittee, sent Kimura a series of written questions last month seeking more clarity on the circumstances surrounding the fires. At the time, he said there were “still too many questions surrounding the sequence of events that led to the devastating fires on Maui.” 

Kimura responded to Griffith on Oct. 28, but those responses were only made available this week.

Hawaiian Electric officials declined to comment for this story.

“It raises a lot of questions and we don’t think Hawaiian Electric has good answers for it.”

James Bickerton, attorney for Maui fire victims

In her written responses, Kimura said Hawaiian Electric began preparing for high winds on Aug. 7 after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning that morning for the leeward coasts of all the Hawaiian islands. 

The severe weather warnings triggered what she called a “Reclose Blocking Procedure” that the company implemented in 2021 to reduce fire risk by disabling circuits that automatically re-energize tripped wires that have gone offline. Under that protocol, she said, the only time a line can be re-energized is if it’s done manually and after an inspection has found it to be “clear and intact.”

On Aug. 8, Kimura said Hawaiian Electric was following this protocol when it inspected and energized a transmission line at 6 a.m. to restore power to some of its customers in Lahaina. 

That same line, she said, tripped offline at 6:39 a.m. — around the same time the fire started — and was never turned back on. 

Kimura acknowledged in her testimony that Hawaiian Electric had dismissed best practices used in California to implement a “public safety power shutoff” program in which electricity is cut before severe weather events to limit the risk of fires. 

She explained that the company had studied whether a similar program would work in Hawaii but ultimately decided against it due to the differences in the perceived risk posed in the islands.

Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura has provided more details to congressional lawmakers about her company’s actions in the lead up to the Aug. 8 wildfire on Maui that killed nearly 100. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

“Our planners determined that the risk of catastrophic wildfire was less severe in Hawai’i than California based on our understanding of differences in vegetation, as well as our own experiences with wildfires until that time,” Kimura said.

She noted that Hawaii had no history of catastrophic wildfires when compared to California and that over the past decade 90% of fires in the state had been less than one acre.

Her response did not address a previous wildfire in Lahaina in 2018 that destroyed 21 homes, scorched 2,100 acres and caused an estimated $4.3 million in damages. At that time, community members demanded action from both Maui County and Hawaiian Electric, but apparently little was done to address their concerns.

Kimura said that preemptive power shut offs can be disruptive, and that Hawaiian Electric was worried that cutting electricity to customers could cause other problems affecting health and safety, whether it means turning off air conditioners for the elderly or disrupting traffic signals.

The fact that the power was out in Lahaina and Hawaiian Electric turned it back on has not been a prominent part of the company’s own narrative of the disaster, but could play a significant role in the company’s future, especially as it faces a barrage of lawsuits for its role in sparking the blaze.

Already, the company has tried to distance itself from the disaster and has pointed out the cause of the afternoon fire that swept through Lahaina has not been determined. The company has agreed that one of its power lines sparked the morning fire around 6:30 a.m. The county as well as attorneys for fire victims contend the afternoon fire was a flare-up of the morning fire.

According to Hawaiian Electric, Maui County firefighters had declared the morning fire extinguished before leaving the scene. When the second fire erupted in the same area around 3 p.m., the company said that all of its lines in West Maui were already de-energized.

Jim Bickerton, a Honolulu attorney who represents a number of fire victims, said the fact that Hawaiian Electric restored power to Lahaina during a windstorm should not be overlooked.

“It’s a central part of the allegations of negligence and these facts that are coming to light show that they’re more than just mere allegations,” Bickerton said. “It raises a lot of questions and we don’t think Hawaiian Electric has good answers for it.”

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

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