By Sammy Underberg
New York City, New York
2023 Hawaii Wildfires. (Ty O'neil/AP Photo)
The investigation into the origin of the Maui wildfires that erupted last week is ongoing, with a primary focus on Hawaii’s largest electricity provider.
The primary concern is their proactive efforts to prevent wildfires caused by interference with the power lines. Attorneys representing Lahaina residents in their litigation against Hawaiian Electric contend that the utiltity’s power equipment lacked the necessary durability to withstand strong winds.The company was obligated to limit power prior to the onset of windy conditions. Based on their analysis of the devastating flames in places such as California over the past twenty years, specialists in wildfires identify deficiencies in the actions taken by Hawaiian Electric.
Hawaiian Electric, founded in 1891 and headquartered on Maui, is a relatively small entity compared to the California utility giants. In the previous years, Hawaiian Electric’s total revenue was $3.7 billion, a modest quantity compared to Pacific Gas and California Electric’s $21 billion in revenue.
For nearly a week, experts have been unable to identify the cause of the Maui fire that claimed the lives of 99 people. Nonetheless, the unpredictable conditions closely resemble those found in regions globally prone to wildfires, where factors such as parched vegetation, strong gusts of wind, and aging infrastructure combined as a result of electrical equipment, producing similar outcomes.
Traditionally, in the United States wildfires have frequently been caused by utility and corporate-owned poles collapsing during periods of strong gusts. These incidents can also occur when branches and other materials disrupt power lines, resulting in intense energy releases, destruction, and explosions with an increased risk of igniting fires. This justification underpins the eruption of incoming fires, most notably in states such as California, during which utility companies are required to cut off power upon receiving warnings of oncoming and potentially hazardous wind conditions.
According to the National Weather Service, they were promptly informed of the approaching strong winds, with some winds reaching 45 mph and even stronger gusts reaching 60 mph. This weather scenario was exacerbated by Hurricane Dora, whose effects spanned the Pacific and were headed toward Hawaii. Therefore, James Frantz, the CEO of Frantz Law Group, and prominent figure among thee law firms pursuing legal action against Hawaiian Electric, acknowledged “We allege that many of the regulatory laws that require maintenance of equipment were broken” and emphasized “There’s got to be some accountability.” James Frantz represents five residents who have filed litigation against Hawaiian Electric. On Mondays, a Hawaiian court initiated the legal proceedings.
During a press conference on Monday, Shelee Kamura, the Chief Executive of Hawaiian Electric, revealed that the company lacked a shutdown power protocol. She acknowledged that initiating a power cutoff could have led to complications, particularly interfering with individuals reliant on electricity-powered medical equipment. Ms. Kamura further elaborated, stating, “[i]n Lahaina, the electricity powers the pumps that provide the water — and so that was also a critical need during that time.”
Monday’s corporate valuation of Hawaiian Electric fell by more than a third as a direct result of the prevailing agreement. This change reflects investors' concerns about the company's potential financial liabilities as a consequence of the numerous lawsuits.
In terms of the actual sequence of events preceding the initial outbreak of flames, the beginning occurred on Monday, August 7th, coinciding with the National Weather Service's recording of strong winds originating in the Pacific and converging on Hawaii. Existing arid conditions on Maui exacerbated the island's susceptibility to catching fire.
Consequently, on Tuesday, August 8, the fire broke out. Between 12:20 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., the flames spread from one shrub to another along Lahainaluna Road, a thoroughfare traversing West Maui's historic town of Lahaina. By 3p.m., the flames had spread across thousands of acres, prompting Mayor Richard Bissen to declare a state of emergency at 9:45 p.m. Maui was experiencing power disruptions and a lack of landline and cellular communication services on August 9th. On the 10th of August, it was reported that 80% of the wildfires were contained, with the death toll reaching 55; on the 11th of August, this figure increased to 85%, with 80 confirmed fatalities.
In the meantime, while the Lahaina fire remained contained at 85%, the Pulehu/Kihei fire was fully contained at 100%.