Search and recovery team members check charred buildings and cars in the aftermath of the Maui Fires in Lahaina, West Maui, Hawaii, August 17, 2023.
Yuki Iwamura | AFP | Getty Images
Hawaiian electric is opposing a lawsuit filed last week by Maui County accusing the utility of starting the wildfires that have killed more than 100 people, caused billions of dollars in damage and left hundreds missing.
The utility said power lines knocked down by high winds were likely the cause of the early morning bushfire in Lahaina, but power had been out for hours when a second fire broke out in the afternoon.
Shares of Hawaiian Electric soared more than 40% on Monday.
“We were surprised and disappointed that Maui County rushed to court before it even completed its own investigation,” Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said in a statement Sunday. “We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible.”
“Unfortunately, the county’s lawsuit may leave us with no choice in the court system but to show accountability for what happened that day,” Kimura said.
Hawaiian Electric said power lines appear to have caused the bushfire, which broke out at 6:30 a.m. local time at the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street in the historic town. The small fire near the downed poles spread to a field near Lahaina Middle School.
The Maui County Fire Department responded to the morning fire and said it had been extinguished, according to the company’s account of the events leading up to the wildfires.
Hawaiian Electric crews repairing the downed poles then saw a fire around 3 p.m., about 75 yards away, in a field near Lahaina Middle School and immediately reported it to authorities, according to the company.
Hawaiian Electric said the power had been out for hours when the crew witnessed the second fire on the ground. By the time county firefighters responded to the afternoon blaze, they were unable to contain the blaze as it spread uncontrollably toward Lahaina, according to the company.
Hawaiian Electric is facing a dozen lawsuits seeking damages for its alleged role in the fires. Ratings agency Fitch downgraded the company’s credit rating, warning that more than $3.8 billion in potential liability poses an existential threat to the company.
The cause of the Maui wildfire, the deadliest in the United States in more than a century, is still under investigation by state, local and federal authorities. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dispatched a team consisting of an electrical engineer to assist in the investigation.
Hawaiian Electric informed the ATF that it had records showing that no electricity was flowing through its cables when the second fire broke out, according to the company.