Hawaii county sues power company over deadly wildfires

The towering wildfire that destroyed Lahaina is known to have killed at least 115 people (Mandel NGAN)
The towering wildfire that destroyed Lahaina is known to have killed at least 115 people (Mandel NGAN)

Maui County is suing Hawaii's electricity company over the deadly fire that leveled Lahaina, alleging the destruction could have been avoided if power lines had been shut off.

The lawsuit is the latest step in a growing critical focus on the power provider in the wake of the blaze, which killed at least 115 people, with videos apparently showing downed cables setting light to vegetation in the hours before tragedy struck.

The lawsuit says there was plenty of warning of strong winds from a nearby hurricane, but Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries negligently kept power lines live.

"These power lines foreseeably ignited the fast-moving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which completely destroyed residences, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites," the lawsuit, filed Thursday, says.

"Defendants knew that the high winds the (National Weather Service) predicted would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation.

"Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate."

The county -- which is itself under pressure over what critics say was a lack of preparation ahead of the fire and a lackluster response in its aftermath -- is demanding unspecified damages and compensation for the destruction.

"Maui County stands alongside the people and communities of Lahaina and Kula to recover public resource damages and rebuild after these devastating utility-caused fires," the county said in a statement.

Power companies in California routinely shut down large stretches of above-ground power lines in strong winds, a strategy credited with helping to avoid some blazes.

On August 14, Hawaiian Electric boss Shelee Kimura defended the decision to keep the network live, saying electricity was necessary to keep water pumping in Lahaina.

The August 8 fire was the deadliest wildfire the United States has seen for more than a century.

It burned through around 2,000 acres (800 hectares) and laid waste to the historic town of Lahaina, a former Hawaiian royal seat and a thriving tourist hub.

Flames, fanned by powerful winds, moved so quickly that many residents were caught unaware, only learning there was a fire when they saw it for themselves.

Some abandoned their cars as they tried to flee the town and sought refuge in the ocean, where they cowered for hours as their homes were incinerated.

The official toll is expected to rise as a grim search of the ashen remains of Lahaina is completed.

Thousands of people have been made homeless, with recovery expected to take years. Federal estimates suggest the fire caused $5.5 billion of damage.

The lawsuit, which also includes a demand for a jury trial, comes a week after the head of Maui's emergency management agency resigned amid criticism for not sounding the island's network of warning sirens.

Also on Thursday, Maui county officials released a list of 388 names of people who remain unaccounted for.

Police said the aim was to encourage anyone who knew the whereabouts of people on the list to come forward, so they could be removed.

The practice is common in the wake of a disaster, and the figure of 388 does not indicate that this number of people are likely to be dead, only that they have been reported to authorities as not having been seen.