As wildfires on Maui have grown in size and closer to neighborhoods in recent years, residents have urged the power company and state regulators to help prevent electrical equipment from making things worse.
But Hawaiian Electric, the state’s largest utility and the parent company of the power provider on Maui, made wildfire prevention its lowest priority in a state regulatory filing in April. In fact, the utility had no plan to cut power to prevent further ignitions even after flames began consuming the island.
“There should have been a requirement for them to cut off power,” said Jennifer Potter, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission who had fielded numerous calls from residents on Maui long before last week’s fire, about the need for a stronger wildfire prevention strategy.
“When there is a catastrophic event like this, there’s all the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas.’ Wildfire mitigation has taken a back seat in utility planning,” she said.
The recent devastation on Maui served as a reminder that climate-driven disaster can strike anywhere. But people like Ms. Potter argue that the series of deadly wildfires in California that led to dozens of guilty pleas on manslaughter charges by Pacific Gas & Electric, that state’s largest utility, should have served as warning to other power companies across the country.
Especially during periods of high winds, live power lines can come into contact with dry tree limbs or tumble down into arid brush, sparking fires.
To prevent more fires, PG&E began more frequent use of proactive power shut offs, along with cameras, weather stations and control systems that allow the utility to cut power to small numbers of customers in targeted areas — methods first used broadly by another California utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, after its equipment caused a fire in 2007.
The shut-offs have been controversial, with some customers complaining that power was shut off unnecessarily, causing unneeded disruptions.
Hawaiian Electric said it maintains a “robust wildfire mitigation and grid resilience program that includes vegetation management, grid hardening investments and regular inspection of our assets.” But the utility does not use power shut-offs in its wildfire strategy.
“Specific to a formal power shut-off program, we, like most utilities, do not have one,” said Jim Kelly, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric. “Pre-emptive, short-notice power shut-offs have to be coordinated with first-responders,” he said. In Lahaina, he added, having electrical power is important for firefighting efforts.
Multiple law firms have announced plans to represent fire victims with at least one in a potential class action, claiming that the utility might be at fault in the cause of the blazes on Maui.
“From what we’ve learned, we believe the Lahaina fires could have been prevented had proper safety precautions been taken,” said Gerald Singleton, one lawyer who issued a release about potential lawsuits.
No cause for the fires that struck Lahaina and other surrounding areas have been officially determined, but some residents have reported that active power lines that fell in the high winds could have ignited blazes.
“This, maybe, it’s something that should have been planned for,” said Representative Nicole Lowen, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and the Environment in the Hawaii State Legislature. “I think that this catastrophe is going to catalyze further discussion.”
Ms. Potter said Maui residents have been calling for action since at least 2019, as fires have grown more common, but she said regulators have not taken needed action, such as requiring plans for utilities to cut power during weather events that pose a risk of wildfires and approving more funds for improvements to the electric grid.
“This inaction from the commission is not helping,” Ms. Potter said. “I didn’t make it a priority. It was definitely on my radar.”