Were The Hawaii Wildfires Preventable? The Responsibility of Hawaiian Electric

The tragic and devastating wildfires that recently ravaged Maui have left countless residents searching for answers and accountability. As more facts emerge, it’s apparent that these catastrophic events, which claimed over 95 lives, might have been preventable.

The question on many minds is, could the Hawaiian Electric, which provides power to 95% of Hawaii’s residents, have done more to prevent or mitigate the severity of these fires?

The Maui wildfires, among the most catastrophic, have put Hawaiian Electric under intense scrutiny, particularly due to their decision to not implement a “public power shutoff plan” in anticipation of severe wind conditions. A measure that has been embraced in several states, like California, following tragic fires in 2017 and 2018.

The fact that Hawaiian Electric was acutely aware of the potential benefits of a power shut-off strategy, yet failed to integrate it into their fire prevention plans, raises serious questions. With nearly 95% of Hawaii’s residents depending on this utility for electricity, the onus of responsibility is vast.

Former members of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and ex-energy commissioners for Maui County have voiced concerns about the utility’s lack of proactivity. They cite previous incidents and close calls as indications that a system for routine power shutdowns and an investment in underground power lines were imperative.

The dangers of an aged and fragile electrical grid, dominated by wooden poles interspersed amid lush vegetation, are evident. But the risks go beyond mere infrastructure. The very nature of the recent fires suggests multiple small ignitions likely from power lines merged into a massive inferno. This theory has been further corroborated by experts such as Michael Wara, a wildfire specialist from Stanford University.

The aftermath of these fires mirrors haunting scenes from the Tubbs Fire of 2017 in California, a catastrophe that forced the nation to reevaluate its perspective on wildfires. With the memories of the Camp Fire of 2018, where Pacific Gas & Electric’s outdated equipment played a role, the importance of utilities taking proactive, preventative measures becomes undeniably evident.

Hawaii is no stranger to the challenges of climate change and the influx of nonnative grasses that exacerbate wildfire risks. Hawaiian Electric has made commitments to bolster the resilience of its infrastructure, which include moving power lines underground and strengthening poles. But these measures, although commendable, seem reactive rather than proactive.

The utility’s reservations about shutting off power, primarily due to concerns of hindering fire crews or affecting customers with medical needs, are valid. However, with advanced planning and coordination, these challenges can be managed. Other states have successfully navigated these issues, and there’s no reason Hawaii cannot do the same.

As advocates for those affected by negligence and a lack of oversight, we at OnderLaw believe in holding entities accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. It’s our sincere hope that the tragic events in Maui serve as a wake-up call, catalyzing change and fostering a safer future for all.

In the end, while utilities face a multitude of challenges, the safety and well-being of the communities they serve must always be paramount. Let’s learn from the Maui wildfires and ensure that such preventable tragedies do not happen again.

If you have been affected by the recent tragedy in Hawaii, don’t hesitate to contact OnderLaw today for your free consultation. Your case is our cause.