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Hearing on deadly Maui wildfires seeks answers to cause, prevention efforts

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(NEW YORK) — Hawaii energy and utility officials were grilled Thursday by House members seeking answers about how the deadly Maui wildfires started and could have been prevented.

“We must come to a complete understanding of how this disaster started to ensure Hawaii and other states are prepared to prevent and stop other deadly wildfires,” the committee stated in a recent letter. “To that end, we seek a fuller understanding of the role, if any, of the electric infrastructure in this tragic event.”

On Aug. 8, a series of deadly wildfires broke out across the island of Maui. At least 97 people were killed and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.

According to the President & CEO of Hawaiian Electric Shelee Kimura, a fire at 6:30 a.m. was caused by power lines that fell in high winds. The Maui County Fire Department responded to the fire, reporting it at 9 a.m. as “100% contained” and later determining it to be “extinguished” and leaving the scene.

Kimura said all of Hawaiian Electric’s power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours when a second fire began in the same area around 3 p.m. The cause of this fire, which grew into the blaze that devastated the historic town of Lahaina, has not yet been determined.

Committee members questioned Kimura on the company’s protocols for shutting off power lines in response to extreme weather conditions. Kimura said they were “very aware of the red flag warning,” which is a warning from the National Weather Service that indicates warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds may combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.

She said that preemptive power shutdowns are not part of their wildfire mitigation plans, but that the company is reexamining their protocols.

Forecasters were indicating that it would be 35 to 45 miles per hour winds with gusts of 60 miles per hour. They later indicated as this was happening, that they had been forecasted that parts of the state were experiencing much higher winds and gusts of about 80 miles per hour,” said Kimura, but she did not know when the warning came in about higher winds.

When asked in questioning, Hawaii Public Utilities Commission chairman Leodoloff R. Asuncion, Jr. said that HECO, the electric company, has the authority to proactively de-energize their power lines when they receive warnings from the National Weather Service.

Chief Energy Officer of the Hawai’i State Energy Office Mark B. Glick was questioned on changes to the policy to reduce vegetation that could cause a fire, as the ability of the electric company to clear brush and vegetation is limited.

According to the House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders, evidence of a downed power line sparking dry brush on the island indicated that Hawaiian Electric equipment may have contributed to the fires. The committee also questioned what actions Hawaiian Electric took in hardening and modernizing the Maui electric grid amid growing wildfire threats.

Kimura said that community members have said they want to have power lines underground as a form of wildfire prevention and mitigation.

However, she added: “On a small island like Maui, with only 70,000 customers, that can get very expensive in a place where … we have the highest rates in the nation. And we’re already facing an economy where many of our people who have lived in Hawaii for a long time can no longer afford to live in Hawaii. So those are the kinds of considerations we have when we make these kinds of decisions.”

The lawsuit alleges that Maui Electric Company, Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Hawaiʻi Electric Light Company, Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service red flag warning on Aug. 7.

A separate class-action lawsuit was also filed against Hawaiian Electric that alleges that the company “inexcusably kept their power lines energized” despite forecasts of high winds that could topple power lines and potentially ignite a fast-spreading blaze.

Kimura said in a statement that the allegations in the lawsuit from Maui County were “factually and legally irresponsible.” She claimed the company’s investigation showed it responded to both fires promptly.

“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review,” Jim Kelly, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric Industries, said about the lawsuit.

 

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