Maui County sues power company, claiming utility didn't shut off electricity during deadly wildfires

Fire damage is pictures as US President Joe Biden (out of frame) visits to an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. The Bidens are expected to meet with first responders, survivors, and local officials following deadly w

Maui County sued Hawaiian Electric Company on Thursday over the fires that devastated Lahaina, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.

Witness accounts and video indicated that sparks from power lines ignited fires as utility poles snapped in the winds, which were driven by a passing hurricane. The Aug. 8 fires killed at least 115 people and left an unknown number of others missing, making them the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.

Hawaii Electric said in a statement it is "very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding."

The lawsuit said the destruction could have been avoided and that the utility had a duty "to properly maintain and repair the electric transmission lines, and other equipment including utility poles associated with their transmission of electricity, and to keep vegetation properly trimmed and maintained to prevent contact with overhead power lines and other electric equipment."

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The utility knew that high winds "would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation," the lawsuit said. "Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate."

A drought in the region had left plants, including invasive grasses, dangerously dry. As Hurricane Dora passed roughly 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Hawaii, strong winds toppled at least 30 power poles in West Maui. Video shot by a Lahaina resident shows a downed power line setting dry grasses alight. Firefighters initially contained that fire, but then left to attend to other calls, and residents said the fire later reignited and raced toward downtown Lahaina.

With downed power lines, police or utility crews blocking some roads, traffic ground to a standstill along Lahaina’s Front Street. A number of residents jumped into the water off Maui as they tried to escape the flaming debris and overheated black smoke enveloping downtown.

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Dozens of searchers in snorkel gear this week have been combing a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) stretch of water for signs of anyone who might have perished. Crews are also painstakingly searching for remains among the ashes of destroyed businesses and multistory residential buildings.

For now, the number of confirmed dead stands at 115, a number that the county said is expected to rise.

Maui County on Thursday released eight additional names of people who have been identified, including a family of four whose remains were found in a burned car near their home: 7-year-old Tony Takafua; his mother Salote Tone, 39; and his grandparents Faaoso Tone, 70, and Maluifonua Tone, 73.

The FBI and Maui County police are still trying to figure out how many others might be unaccounted for. The FBI said Tuesday there were 1,000 to 1,100 names on a tentative, unconfirmed list.

RELATED: Video shows Maui survivors jumping into water to escape devastating fire

"Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County," Hawaiian Electric’s statement said.

Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii’s electric customers. It is also facing several lawsuits from Lahaina residents as well as one from some of its own investors, who accused it of fraud in a federal lawsuit Thursday, saying it failed to disclose that its wildfire prevention and safety measures were inadequate.

Maui County’s lawsuit notes other utilities, such as Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric, have procedures for shutting off power during bad windstorms and said the "severe and catastrophic losses ... could have easily been prevented" if Hawaiian Electric had a similar shutoff plan.

The county said it is seeking compensation for damage to public property and resources in Lahaina as well as nearby Kula.

Other utilities have been found liable for devastating fires recently.

In June, a jury in Oregon found the electric utility PacifiCorp responsible for causing devastating fires during Labor Day weekend in 2020, ordering the company to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and finding it liable for broader damages that could push the total award into the billions.

Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after its neglected equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings and virtually razed the town of Paradise, California.

Johnson reported from Seattle.