As the search for several hundreds of missing people continues across the wildfire-ravaged western edge of Maui, grid experts—and lawyers—are zeroing in on evidence that sparks from fallen power lines ignited the lethal blazes.
Unproven as yet, and unconfirmed by authorities, the theory would hold local utility Hawaiian Electric responsible for the devastation that according to CNN left at least 114 people dead since bushfires erupted in Maui on August 8, then tore through the historic town of Lāhainā. The death toll includes a family of four who tried to escape the flames in their car and three residents of a seniors’ complex that burned to the ground. At last count, 1,000 people remained missing.
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Several harrowing eyewitness stories describe the cataclysm that roared into Lāhainā, a seaside town of 12,700 people. Resident Mike Cicchino told The Associated Press it was like a waking nightmare, with people frantically “choosing whether to stay or to run, and where to run to—through smoke so thick it blinded them, flames closing in from every direction, cars exploding, toppled power lines and uprooted trees, fire whipping through the wind and raining down.”
Many, including children, ran into the sea, which was “churning and treacherous even for strong swimmers, as the wind kicked up the waves.”
Cicchino and his wife survived, moving “back and forth between sea and shore,” crouching behind the seawall, and dunking under to avoid flames “falling from the sky.”
Under the seawall’s protection, survivors used their cell phone flashlights to guide coast guard vessels through the thick smoke to rescue those in the water, he said.
As Cicchino and other traumatized survivors attempt to process what they witnessed, and what they lost, others are trying to determine how the fires started.
One possibility is that sparks from power lines downed by fierce winds from Hurricane Dora set ablaze the tinderbox that Lāhainā and its hinterland have become.
This theory remains unconfirmed, but several lawsuits have already been filed against Hawaiian Electric on behalf of residents. They contend the utility’s equipment was not strong enough to withstand the powerful winds, and that the company should have shut down power before the winds started, reports the New York Times.
The National Weather Service had issued wind warnings in the days and hours preceding the fire, and “public safety power shutoffs” do play a key role in utilities’ fire prevention plans in California, Nevada, and Oregon. But Hawaiian Electric had no such preventive regime in place.
A regulatory filing last year by the utility indicates that it was in the process of “hardening” poles and cutting back vegetation, especially around Lāhainā. But such measures are expensive, with costs usually passed on to the consumer. Hawai’i’s electricity rates are already by far the highest in the United States, notes the Times.
As experts reflect that a power shut off would have been the utility’s cheapest safety option, eyewitness accounts and hard data are pointing in the direction of some kind of electrical failure that day.
“At 10:47 p.m. last Monday, a security camera at the Maui Bird Conservation Center captured a bright flash in the woods, illuminating the trees swaying in the wind,” the Washington Post wrote August 15, a week after the fires started. Conservation workers also witnessed the flash, the corresponding loss of power, the generator kick-in—and then the surrounding forest suddenly aflame.
At precisely the same moment, 10 nearby sensors belonging to Whisker Labs, a private company that monitors grids all across the U.S., recorded a significant “fault”—a term referring to the power released by a line (usually through sparks) when it comes into contact with the ground or another line.
“While the still-burning Makawao fire had nothing to do with the blaze that roared into Lāhainā, it was one of several fires sparked on August 7 and 8,” notes the Post. “At least one of those exploded into the blaze that roared into Lāhainā, overwhelming residents, tourists, and firefighters.”
Bob Marshall, founder and CEO of Whisker Labs, which has 78 sensors on Maui and hundreds of thousands across the country, is convinced the synchronicity between his sensors and the video recording at the Conservation Center is no coincidence.
“This is strong confirmation—based on real data—that utility grid faults were likely the ignition source for multiple wildfires on Maui,” said Marshall.
Authorities have yet to weigh in, and Hawaiian Electric has mostly declined to speak to the issue of cause, with spokesperson Darren Pai telling Utility Dive in an email that the company’s current focus is on supporting emergency response efforts and restoring power for 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,” Pai added.
But last Monday, utility CEO Shelee Kimura said the CEO “had not shut off power in Lahaina because electricity was needed to keep water pumps and medical devices running,” the Times writes. “In Lāhainā, the electricity powers the pumps that provide the water—and so that was also a critical need during that time,” she told media. “There are choices that need to be made—and all of those factors play into it.”
When it comes to the lawsuits, Hawaiian Electric will have to prove “they did everything they could that was reasonable to prevent this incident,” Shahriar Pourreza, an analyst who covers the utility’s stock for Guggenheim Securities, told the Times. “Was there gross negligence, was there imprudence?”
“We’ve been raising climate change for more than two decades, and the utility has been really slow in dealing with it,” added Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, a Hawai’ian non-profit that speaks for consumers before the state Public Utilities Commission and strongly supports power shutoff programs. “Certainly Hawaiian Electric knew that Lāhainā was the most vulnerable place. They’ve known that for years.”
It remains to be seen how another thread in the painful story of Lāhainā plays out: one of recovering losses and footing the sky-high costs of rebuilding. According to an RBC Capital Markets analysis, the town’s total insured losses are in the US$2-billion to US$3-billion range, reports theGlobe and Mail. This means some of the largest U.S. insurers, like State Farm, will see some “manageable” losses, says RBC. With residential losses constituting some 85% of the total, “analysts predict those insurers who sell the homeowners’ multi-peril policies will see the largest impact.”
The RBC report says the losses in Maui “are estimated based on the assumed price of about US$1-million per home.” A glance at Realtor.com listings for Lāhainā dating from before the fire reveals many homes well below that price—and many above—raising concerns about residents who can’t afford expensive homes and don’t have insurance to help them rebuild. As an increasing number of U.S. insurers bow out of covering properties in high-risk places, less affluent homeowners may soon find themselves forsaken.