Maui’s fires may have been caused by downed power lines
Maui’s fires may have been caused by downed power lines

Shane Treu was awakened by the howling winds sweeping through his Maui community, and went out at dawn to see a wooden utility pole suddenly snap with a flash and its sparking wires fall to the dry grass below. And quickly ignited a row of flames.

He called 911 and then took to Facebook to livestream his efforts to fight the fire in Lahaina, including dousing his house with a garden hose.

“I heard ‘buzz, buzz,'” the 49-year-old resort worker recalled to The Associated Press. “It was almost like someone lit a firework. It ran straight up the hill, into a big mound of grass, and then, with the wind blowing, the fire blazed.”

Video from Tru and others captures the early moments of the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. Now, the video has become key evidence that a falling utility line was the likely cause. Hawaiian Electric has faced criticism for not turning off power during a high wind warning and keeping power on when dozens of power poles began to collapse.

A class action lawsuit has been filed claiming the company is responsible for the deaths of at least 99 people. The suit cites the utility’s own documents showing that it was aware that pre-emptive power outages, such as those used in California, were an effective wildfire prevention strategy but never adopted them.

“Nobody likes turning off power – it’s inconvenient – but any utility with a significant risk of wildfires, especially wind-driven ones, needs to,” wildfire expert Michael Wara said. And there needs to be an appropriate plan in place,” said Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. “In this case, the utility didn’t do that.”

“It turns out there could have been other causes of this fire, and the utility line wasn’t the main cause,” Valla said. “But if it was, boy, it doesn’t need to happen.”

Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit or whether it had previously shut off power due to high winds. But President and CEO Shelee Kimura noted in a news conference Monday that the decision involved many factors, including the possible impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and firefighters who need electricity to pump water.

“Even where this approach is used, it’s controversial and not universally accepted,” she said.

Maui Police Chief John Peltier also expressed disappointment at a news conference as people complained that power wasn’t cut sooner and that too many people were missing due to a lack of cellphone and internet service.

“Do you want notifications or do you want to power off?” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Mikal Watts, one of the attorneys behind the suit, told The Associated Press this week that he was in Maui interviewing witnesses and “gathering simultaneous footage.”

“There is solid evidence captured on video that at least one source of the power line ignition occurred when a tree fell into a Hawaiian Electric Power line,” Watts said, confirming that he was referring to Truu’s footage.

Truw started recording three videos on Facebook at 6:40 a.m. on Aug. 8, three minutes after authorities said they received the first report of the fire. With a hose in one hand and a phone in the other, he live-streamed as the first police cars arrived and warned officers not to step over live wires that lay on the road.

At one point, he zooms in on a cable dangling from a field of scorched grass surrounded by orange flames.

Tru’s neighbor, Robert Aconado, also recorded a video and provided it to The Associated Press. Aconado’s video, which began at 6:48 a.m., showed a lone firefighter making his way toward the blaze, which continued downhill and downwind westward along Lahainaluna Road toward the town. Center spread.

At 9 a.m., Maui officials declared the fire “100 percent contained,” and firefighters left. But around 2 p.m., Alconado said the same area was on fire again.

A video he took at 3.06pm showed howling winds continued to batter the island, with smoke and embers being carried towards the town. Aconado continued to film for several hours as towering columns of fire and smoke billowed from communities below the mountain, forcing people to jump into the sea to escape.

“It’s horrific, it’s horrific,” Alconado said. “Going nowhere. … I’ve witnessed everything. I never sleep.”

Homes in Tru and Alconado were spared, but satellite imagery reviewed by The Associated Press showed entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes starting about 500 yards downwind. No lightning strikes or other apparent natural causes of fires have been recorded, although experts say early evidence suggests multiple fires may have broken out in and around Lahaina on Aug. 8.

Robert Marshall, chief executive of Whisker Labs, a company that collects and analyzes data on the power grid, said sensors installed across Maui to detect sparks in power lines showed such livelines that night and the next morning. The number of wire incidents is very high and very dangerous. There are 70 of these sensors in all, breaking records for power delivery after fallen trees knocked out power lines or other incidents, and they show dozens of such failures in areas where fires are likely and when fires are likely to start.

Marshall likened these failures to a series of circuit breakers that tripped simultaneously, causing a significant loss of power and one-third the usual 120 volts flowing through the lines. Marshall said he couldn’t say for sure whether any sparks started the fire, noting that the chances of that happening were numerous.

“A huge amount of energy was released,” Marshall said, pointing to a graph on a computer screen in which several lines fell simultaneously. “Any one of these failures could start a wildfire, and any one could be a source of ignition.”

PG&E agreed to pay more than $13.5 billion to victims of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California that killed 85 people when a power line collapsed. State regulators have adopted new procedures requiring utilities to shut off power when forecasters predict high winds and dry weather could spread fires.

On Maui, the National Weather Service first began alerting the public of dangerous fire conditions on Aug. 3. Forecasters issued a “red flag warning” on Aug. 7, warning that a combination of high winds and dry conditions would create ideal conditions for fires.

While Hawaiian Electric officials specifically cited the Kemp fire and California’s blackout plans as examples in planning documents and funding requests to state regulators, there was no procedure in place to shut down the island’s power grid on the day of the fire in Maui. .

Vara said Tru’s release of the video also casts doubt on Hawaiian Electric’s claim that it has disabled the automatic charging mechanism that would restore power after a failure because of the downed power lines that Truu documented Seems to still be powered on.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced last week that she is “conducting a comprehensive review of key decisions and long-term policies before, during and after the wildfires.”

Hawaiian Electric’s Kimura said the company has started its own investigation. Its shares have tumbled more than 40% in the past week amid fears the company may have to pay huge losses. The stock plunged another 20% in afternoon trading Tuesday.

Watts, one of the attorneys suing the company, said the fire that devastated Lahaina was predictable given weather and fuel conditions. He said Hawaiian Electric Company documents show the company knew Maui’s grid had degraded after decades of neglect. The old utility poles were supposed to be replaced between 2019 and this year, but he claimed the company delayed the work.

“This is why the town of Lahaina has been devastated, with thousands homeless and hundreds mourning the loss of innocent loved ones,” he said. “This is an unprecedented tragedy that could have been completely avoided. tragedy.”

Jennifer Potter, who lives in Lahaina and was a member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission until late last year, confirmed that many of Maui’s wooden poles are in poor condition.

“Even tourists who drive around the island ask, ‘What’s that?’ They tilt pretty badly because the wind literally knocked them over over time. In many cases, they weren’t replaced,” she said . “It obviously can’t handle 60, 70 mph winds.”

A comprehensive wildfire mitigation plan should have been in place years ago, Porter said, including clearing vegetation around power lines and developing outage procedures and providing backup generation for first responders and those who rely on medical equipment.

“There’s more that can be done. Right now we have 20/20 hindsight. But really, we need to focus on what needs to change going forward across the state,” she said. “This kind of thing doesn’t need to happen anymore.”

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