For the first time, Maui County officials publicly blamed Hawaii’s largest electric utility for the wildfires that killed at least 115 people this month, claiming in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that “intentional and malicious” mismanagement of power lines had allowed flames to spark.
The lawsuit accused the utility, Hawaiian Electric, of failing to respond to ominous weather reports on the day of the fires, Aug. 8, when red-flag fire danger warnings were issued because of hurricane-fueled winds, and of failing to perform basic maintenance in the years beforehand.
“Defendants knew of the extreme fire danger that the high wind gusts posed to their overhead electrical infrastructure, particularly during red flag conditions,” the lawsuit said. It said power company officials had chosen “not to de-energize their power lines,” even though they knew that power poles and power lines were falling and coming into contact with dry vegetation.
Hawaiian Electric, which provides service for about 95 percent of people in the state, has been a focus of scrutiny since the first days after the wildfires. The fire in Lahaina, in West Maui, became the country’s deadliest in more than a century, while smaller fires in central Maui also caused significant damage. Lawsuits filed previously by homeowners and shareholders claimed the utility had been negligent.
But the county’s civil case, filed on Thursday in State Circuit Court, was the first time the utility had been directly blamed for the destruction by the local government.
County leaders have also faced criticism in recent days for their actions, including for not ordering evacuations sooner and for not activating emergency sirens.
Hawaiian Electric officials did not respond to the county’s allegations in a statement released on Thursday.
“Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County,” the company’s statement said. “We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”
Utility officials have pointed out previously that the water system in the Lahaina area relies on electrical power to pump water through the network and deliver it to fire hydrants. Officials with the company have said that the need to maintain that pumping capability made any decision to shut off power, even when high winds posed a fire risk, a complicated one.
On the morning of Aug. 8, video footage captured by residents in Lahaina showed flames under a broken power line located a little more than a mile from the town’s main business district. Firefighters were able to contain that blaze and spent hours monitoring the site. But the scene flared up in the afternoon after firefighters had left the area, and residents said the fire had soon begun rushing toward residential areas.
More than two weeks after the fires ignited, the full toll of the disaster remains unclear. At least 1,000 people were unaccounted for as of Tuesday, leaving families increasingly desperate as officials prepared to release a list of the missing. Many of the remains recovered by search teams have not yet been identified. And in Lahaina, a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, historic streets are lined with the charred remnants of cars and homes.
The county’s lawsuit claims that the devastation was preventable.
Over dozens of pages, the lawsuit accuses Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries of repeated missteps before and during the fires. The county said the utility had failed to maintain its power poles, many of which it said were decaying, and had failed to clear out vegetation near power lines that could ignite a blaze, even as climate change made the state more vulnerable to devastating wildfires.
Then, on the day of the fire, the county said, Hawaiian Electric did not adequately respond to a crescendo of warnings from the National Weather Service as a hurricane moved offshore and stirred up high winds on the drought-stricken island.
The county claimed that the utility had kept its power lines electrified even as red-flag warnings were issued and reports emerged of power lines falling into vegetation and igniting fires.
“Had defendants heeded” the warnings from the National Weather Service “and de-energized their power lines during the predicted high-wind gusts,” the lawsuit claimed, “this destruction could have been avoided.”
Mike Baker and Ivan Penn contributed reporting.