Maui fires: Utility company under scrutiny amid search for cause

Footage has emerged as key evidence indicating that downed power lines could be the cause of the deadly wildfires.

WASHINGTON — Awakened by howling winds ripping through his Maui neighborhood, Shane Treu was outside at dawn to see a wooden pole suddenly snap, its sparking wire falling. down on the dry grass below and quickly ignited a row of flames.

He called 911 and then turned on Facebook videos live stream his fighting effort fire in Lahainainclude wet your property with a garden hose.

“I heard ‘buzz, buzz’,” the 49-year-old resort employee told The Associated Press. “It was almost like someone set off fireworks. It just ran straight up the hill to a bigger haystack and then, with high winds, that fire burned.

Video by Treu and others capturing the early moments of what will become America’s deadliest wildfire for more than a century. Now, the footage has emerged as key evidence pointing to the possible cause of downed power lines. Hawaiian Electric Co. faced criticism for not turning off the power during high wind warnings and keeping it on even when dozens of power poles began to fall.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed that holds the company responsible for the deaths of at least 101 people. The suit cites the utility company’s own documents showing that it knew that priority power cuts such as those used in California were an effective strategy to prevent wildfires but never implemented them. .

“No one likes to turn off the power — that’s inconvenient — but any utility with significant wildfire risk, especially wind-driven wildfire risk, needs to be,” says Michael Wara, a wildfire expert. You have to do that and you need to have a plan in place.” is director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. “In this case, the utility is not.”

“There could be other causes of this fire and power lines were not the main cause,” Wara said. “But if that’s the case, boy, this doesn’t have to happen.”

Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit or whether it had previously cut power due to high winds. But President and CEO Shelee Kimura noted at a news conference Monday that there were many factors that led to that decision, including the possible impact on people dependent on medical devices. Medical professionals and firefighters need electricity to pump water.

“Even in places where this has been used, it is controversial and not widely accepted,” she said.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier also expressed disappointment at the press conference that people were complaining that the electricity wasn’t cut off sooner and that too many people were missing because of a lack of cell phones and internet service.

“Do you want notifications or do you want to power off?” he say. “You don’t get it both ways.”

Mikal Watts, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit, told the AP this week that he was in Maui, interviewing witnesses and “collecting videos taken at the same time.”

“There is credible evidence, captured on video, that at least one of the sources of power line fires occurred when trees fell on Hawaiian Electric power lines,” said Watts, who confirmed he was referring to Treu’s footage.

Treu took three videos to Facebook on August 8 beginning at 6:40 a.m., three minutes after authorities said they received the first report of the fire. hold the faucet With one hand and the other holding a phone, he was live when the first police cruisers arrived and could hear officers’ warnings about live power lines on the way.

At one point, he zoomed in on the camera on a cable dangling from a charred lawn, surrounded by orange flames.

Treu’s neighbor, Robert Arconado, also recorded the videos he provided to the AP. Arconado footage, which began at 6:48 a.m., shows a lone firefighter heading toward the flames as they continue to spread downhill westward and downstream along Lahainaluna Road, toward the center of town. .

By 9 a.m., Maui officials had declared the fire “100 percent contained” and the fire brigade had left. But around 2 p.m., Arconado said the same area was on fire again.

A video he took at 3:06 p.m. showed smoke and embers being carried towards the town as howling winds continued to hit the island. Arconado continued filming for hours, as towering columns of fire and smoke rose from residential areas downhill, forcing people to jump into the sea escape.

“It’s scary, it’s scary,” Arconado said. “There is nowhere to go. … I have witnessed everything. I never go to sleep.”

Treu and Arconado’s homes were unaffected, but satellite imagery reviewed by the AP showed that starting from about 500 yards downwind, the entire vicinity was affected. reduced to ash. Although experts say early evidence suggests multiple fires may have broken out in and around Lahaina on August 8, there are no records of lightning strikes or other obvious natural causes. cause fires.

Robert Marshall, CEO of Whisker Labs, a company that collects and analyzes electrical grid data, says sensors installed throughout Maui to detect sparking power lines show the amount of power outage. such live wiring was dangerously high that night and into the next morning. The sensors, a total of 70, record failures in power lines after trees fall on power lines or other accidents, and they show dozens of such failures in likely areas. fire and around the time the fire might start.

The failures, which Marshall likened to a series of circuit breakers tripping at once, were remarkable in terms of the amount of power lost, a third of the usual 120 volts flowing through the lines. Marshall said he could not say whether any sparks led to the fire, only noting that there was a good chance it would happen.

“A significant amount of energy was released,” Marshall said, pointing to a chart on his computer screen with several lines falling all at once. “Any of these faults can cause a bushfire, any fault can be a source of fire.”

After a 2018 campfire in northern California that killed 85 people in a disaster caused by a downed power line, Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay more than 13.5 billion USD to save the victim. State regulators have adopted new procedures that require utilities to turn off power when weather forecasters predict high winds and dry conditions that could cause fires to spread.

In Maui, the National Weather Service first began warning the public of hazardous fire conditions on August 3. Weather forecasters issued a “red flag warning” on August 7. August, warned that the combination of high winds from a Category 4 storm stirring offshore and drought conditions due to climate change would create ideal conditions for fire.

Although Hawaiian Electric officials specifically cited Camp Fire and California’s outage plans as examples in planning documents and requesting funding to state regulators, on the date of the incident. In the Maui fire, there is no procedure to turn off the island’s electricity grid.

Wara said the video posted by Treu also raises questions about Hawaiian Electric’s claim that it disabled the automatic recharging mechanism to turn the power back on after the incident because it appeared to be a downed power cord that Treu recorded. is still active.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced last week that she had opened “a comprehensive review of the critical decision-making and standing policies that led to, during, and after the wildfires.”

Hawaiian Electric’s Kimura said the company has begun its own investigation. Its shares have plummeted 60% in the past week on fears the company may have to pay massive damages.

Watts, one of the lawyers suing the company, said the fire that consumed Lahaina was predictable, given weather and fuel conditions. He said Hawaiian Electric documents show the company knew its power grid on Maui had deteriorated after decades of neglect. The old power poles were supposed to be replaced between 2019 and this year, but he accused the company of delaying the work.

“That’s why the town of Lahaina has been devastated, thousands are now homeless and hundreds will mourn the loss of their innocent loved ones,” he said. “This is an unprecedented tragedy and a completely preventable tragedy.”

Jennifer Potter, who lives in Lahaina and was until last year a member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, said a comprehensive wildfire mitigation plan should have been established years in advance.

“There are many things that could have been done. We now have 20/20 hindsight,” she said. “This doesn’t have to happen anymore.”

Edmuns DeMars

Edmund DeMarche is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Edmund DeMarche joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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