Jul 03, 2023

Hawaiian Electric says power lines were 'de

Hawaiian Electric pushed back against the latest allegation that it sparked the deadly wildfires that swept through Maui earlier this month, saying Sunday its power lines had been de-energized for more than six hours before the fire that killed at least 115 people ignited.

This is the utility company's first full-throated rebuttal to the allegations that its equipment and downed power lines caused the deadly wildfires that devastated the historic town of Lahaina, and it is in response to a lawsuit filed against it by Maui County on Thursday. Hundreds are still missing after the Aug. 8 blaze as authorities continue to search charred buildings and cars.

The company claims that its power lines had been de-energized earlier in the day in response to a morning fire, which the fire department said it had extinguished, disputing a key criticism that Hawaiian Electric had not shut off the power amid high winds and wildfires.

The company said in its statement that there were two fires on the day of the deadly inferno — the morning fire and one discovered by Hawaiian Electric workers in the afternoon. It admits the first was likely caused by its power lines, but it said the source of the second fire "has not been determined."

The first fire broke out around 6:30 a.m., the Maui County Fire Department responded and later reported that it was “100% contained.” The fire department left the scene about 2 p.m. when the fire was considered “extinguished,” according to Hawaiian Electric’s statement.

The company said its workers then identified a second small fire at 3 p.m. near the same area — “about 75 yards away from Lahainaluna Road in the field near" Lahaina Intermediate School at “a time when all of Hawaiian Electric’s power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours.” The Hawaiian Electric employees allegedly called 911 to report the blaze, which firefighters were unable to control before it engulfed Lahaina.

Dogged by at least 11 other lawsuits in the wake of the fire, Hawaiian Electric has previously declined to comment on the active litigation that has sprouted as a result of the fire and that has heightened the criticism against the utility company.

The statement released Sunday was a response to a lawsuit filed by Maui County on Thursday.

“We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible. It is inconsistent with the path that we believe we should pursue as a resilient community committed and accountable to each other as well as to Hawaii’s future,” said Shelee Kimura, Hawaiian Electric president and CEO. "We continue to stand ready to work to that end with our communities and others.”

Maui County's lawsuit alleges that Hawaiian Electric was negligent as it failed to maintain the power grid prior to the fire or power down its equipment despite the weather conditions and warnings shared by the National Weather Service. The suit claims that the utility company's "energized and downed power lines ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires."

“The county’s lawsuit may leave us no choice in the legal system but to show its responsibility for what happened that day,” Kimura said in her statement.

Hawaiian Electric representatives did not immediately respond when asked to clarify Kimura’s statement and timeline.

“To the extent HECO has information of a second ignition source, HECO should offer that evidence now," said John Fiske, an attorney for Maui County, using an abbreviation for Hawaiian Electric. "The ultimate responsibility rests with HECO to de-energize, ensure its equipment and systems are properly maintained, and ensure downed power lines are not energized.”

The Maui County Fire Department could not be immediately reached for comment.

Mikal Watts, an attorney who filed a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric earlier this month that detailed years of alleged negligence and claims the utility company did not respond responsibly to the weather conditions, said it is noteworthy that Hawaiian Electric had made no allegations about a different ignition source for the second fire.

As a result, Watts said, he did not believe that the dispute between Hawaiian Electric and Maui County would have any "bearing on the one core, relevant truth — Hawaiian Electric’s equipment originally ignited the fire that eventually incinerated the historic town of Lahaina" and left thousands dead, injured or homeless.

Hawaiian Electric’s stock price took a hit in the wake of the wildfire but saw an uptick following the company’s statement. After trading at a low of $9.66 Friday, Hawaiian Electric’s stock price to rose to $13.86 Monday morning. It had traded at $37.36 just prior to the wildfire.

Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter.