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The Hawaii electric utility takes responsibility for the first fire in Maui, but blames the county fire department.

HONOLULU– The Hawaii Power Company has acknowledged its power lines sparked a wildfire in Maui, but blamed county firefighters for declaring the blaze under control and leaving the scene, only to have a second blaze of forest is declared nearby and becomes the deadliest in the United States for more than a century.

Hawaiian Electric Company released a statement late Sunday in response to Maui County’s lawsuit, accusing the utility of failing to shut off power despite unusually strong winds and dry conditions. Hawaiian Electric called the complaint “factually and legally irresponsible” and said its power lines in West Maui had been out for more than six hours when the second fire broke out.

In its statement, the utility addressed the cause for the first time. The fire on the morning of August 8 “appears to have been caused by downed power lines in high winds”, he added. The Associated Press reported on Saturday that bare electrical wires that can spark on contact and leaning poles in Maui were the possible cause.

But Hawaiian Electric appeared to blame Maui County for most of the damage – the fact that the fire appeared to reignite this afternoon and ripped through downtown Lahaina, killing at least 115 people and destroying 2,000 structures .

Richard Fried, a Honolulu attorney working as co-counsel in the Maui County lawsuit, countered that if the power company lines hadn’t caused the initial fire, ‘the whole thing would be moot’ .

“That’s the biggest problem,” Fried said Monday. “They can dance around it all they want. But there is no explanation for this.

The fight over cause could be crucial in determining who is responsible for the billions of dollars in damage beyond the loss of life.

On Monday, Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez urged property owners in burned areas to report any unsolicited offers to purchase that property – an action that can be punished by up to a year in jail and a fine. $5,000 under an emergency proclamation issued by the governor. Josh Green earlier this month. Green said he feared real estate investors would step in and dispossess local residents.

“To go after the people who suffered the most from the Maui tragedy is despicable,” Lopez said.

John Fiske, an attorney for a California firm who is also representing Maui County in the lawsuit, said the ultimate responsibility rests with Hawaiian Electric to properly maintain its equipment and ensure lines are not live when they are broken or could be. beaten down. Fiske said if the utility has information on a second ignition source, it should provide that evidence now.

Mike Morgan, an Orlando attorney who is currently in Maui working on wildfire litigation for his firm, Morgan. & Morgan, said he believed Hawaiian Electric’s statement was an attempt to shift blame and full liability.

“Taking responsibility for starting the first fire, then pointing to a fire that started 75 meters away and saying, ‘It’s not our fault, we started it but they should have put it out, ‘I don’t know how it will hold up,’ Morgan, who handles complex litigation, said Monday. “It’s also very premature because investigations are ongoing.”

Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigating the cause and origin of the fire, as well as attorneys involved in the litigation, were at a warehouse Monday to inspect electrical equipment from the area where the fire allegedly took place. native. The utility dismantled the burned poles and removed the fallen wires from the site.

Videos and images analyzed by AP confirmed that the cables that started the morning fire were among miles of lines the utility had left exposed to weather and often thick foliage, despite recent efforts by utilities to other areas prone to wildfires and hurricanes. conceal their lines or bury them.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the utility’s 60,000 mostly wooden utility poles, which its own documents describe as built to “an outdated 1960s standard,” were leaning and approaching the end of their lifetime. their expected lifespan. They fell far short of a 2002 national standard that required key components of Hawaii’s power grid to withstand 105-mile-per-hour winds.

As Hurricane Dora passed about 800 miles south of Hawaii on August 8, Lahaina resident Shane Treu heard a utility pole snap off Lahainaluna Road. He saw a downed power line ignite the grass and called 911 at 6:37 a.m. to report the fire. Small brush fires are not unusual in Lahaina, and a drought in the area has left plants, including invasive grasses, dangerously dry. The Maui County Fire Department said the blaze was 100% contained at 9:55 a.m. Firefighters then left to respond to further calls.

Hawaiian Electric said its own crews then went to the scene in the afternoon to make repairs and saw no fire, smoke or embers. The electricity in the area was cut off. Shortly before 3 p.m., those crews saw a small fire in a nearby field and called 911, the utility said.

Residents said embers from the morning fire reignited and the fire spread toward downtown Lahaina. Treu neighbor Robert Arconado recorded video of it spreading at 3:06 p.m., as large plumes of smoke rose near Lahainaluna Road and were blown towards the city center.

Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii’s electric customers. CEO Shelee Kimura said there were important lessons to be learned from this tragedy and decided to “determine what we need to do to keep our communities safe as climate issues rapidly escalate here and around the world. the world “.

The utility is facing a series of new lawsuits seeking to hold it accountable. Wailuku attorney Paul Starita, lead counsel in three lawsuits filed by Singleton Schreiber, called it a “preventable tragedy of epic proportions” and said the firefighters’ response does not absolve Hawaiian Electric of liability.


McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.


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