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Government officials in Maui are blaming mismanagement by the utility company for the devastating fires that ripped through the island earlier this month, killing at least 115 people.
Maui County filed a lawsuit against the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) Thursday, alleging that “intentional and malicious” mismanagement of power lines led to the blaze that eventually turned much of the town of Lahaina to ash, The New York Times reported.
“Defendants knew of the extreme fire danger that the high wind gusts posed to their overhead electrical infrastructure, particularly during red flag conditions,” the lawsuit said.
Hawaiian Electric responded to the lawsuit, saying it is “very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”
The utility company, which serves around 95% of Hawaiians, faced criticism for allegedly pursuing green energy projects while delaying fire mitigation efforts. Financial disclosures and reports show the company worried about the state of its electrical grid, and specifically the risk of wildfires, but devoted resources to building out the utility’s green energy network with limited action to mitigate fire risk, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Strong winds propelled by a hurricane 500 miles off the coast of Maui downed around 30 power poles on the island, sparking numerous fires. Video footage captured the day before residents in Lahaina faced the flames showed the moment a downed power line sparked a blaze in the woods. The lawsuit alleges HECO failed “to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th.”
The lawsuit also says that HECO never created a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” plan that is “common in the Western United States.” President and CEO Shelee Kimura said earlier this week that the utility did not pursue a shutoff plan because it would be controversial. HECO also faces lawsuits from homeowners and shareholders who believe the utility was negligent, but this lawsuit marks the first time the local government has directly blamed the utility for the destruction caused by the fire, the Times reported. The fires are estimated to have cost Maui County $5.5 billion in damages.
Government officials are also facing scrutiny for their actions during and after the fire, which was the deadliest in modern American history. Maui Emergency Management Agency Chief Herman Andaya chose not to use the island’s emergency sirens to alert residents to the deadly fire, saying the emergency sirens are usually used for tsunami warnings, which tell Hawaiians to seek higher ground, but that would’ve been toward the fire. Andaya then resigned one day after explaining his decision, citing “health reasons.”
Another government agency, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, was accused of delaying a request for more water to fight the fire because it first had to consult with local farmers. The agency was formerly led by a “water equity advocate,” who was reassigned to a different division following the fires.
When residents attempted to flee Lahaina as the fire spread, witnesses said the only paved road out of the town was blocked by local authorities.
Witnesses who survived the blaze said that traffic quickly backed up as residents attempted to flee to the south, but the road was blocked as a crew worked on downed power lines. One family ignored the barricade and swerved past the cones placed in the road, making it safely to another town nearly an hour later.
“Nobody realized how little time we really had,” said Nate Baird, who drove his wife and two young sons out of Lahaina. “Like even us being from the heart of the fire, we did not comprehend. Like we literally had minutes and one wrong turn. We would all be dead right now.”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier denied that residents were prevented from fleeing Lahaina.
Tim Pearce contributed to this report.