Saved web pages

Some are blaming powerlines for igniting the Maui fires in Hawaii. Here’s what we know – ABC News

Listen to this article

The wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui has been one of the deadliest in a century.

More than 100 bodies have been found so far, with officials saying the number could double as they go through the burned-down towns.

The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but some are pointing the finger at an electricity company for leaving its grid on amid high wind warnings and dozens of toppled poles.

Here’s what we know.

rescue search for hawaii widlfire

Authorities expect the death toll from the blaze to rise.(Reuters: US National Guard/Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson)

Possible video evidence

Awakened by howling winds that tore through his Maui neighbourhood, Shane Treu, was one of the first to film the early moments of the deadly wildfire.

Now the footage has emerged as key evidence pointing to fallen utility lines as the possible cause.

Mr Treu had left his house at dawn when he saw a wooden power pole suddenly snap, igniting a row of flames.

The 49-year-old resort worker called 911 and then turned on Facebook video to livestream his attempt to fight the blaze in Lahaina, including wetting down his property with a garden hose.

“I heard ‘buzz, buzz’,” he recounted to the AP.

“It was almost like somebody lit a firework. It just ran straight up the hill to a bigger pile of grass and then, with that high wind, that fire was blazing.”

Mr Treu recorded three videos to Facebook on August 8 starting at 6:40am local time, three minutes after authorities say they received the first report of the fire.

Holding a hose in one hand and his phone in the other, he streamed live as the first police cruisers arrived. In the footage, he can be heard warning officers about the live powerlines laying in the road.

At one point, he zooms in on a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames.

His neighbour, Robert Arconado, also recorded videos starting at 6:48am, showing a lone firefighter heading toward the flames as they continued to spread west downhill and downwind, toward the centre of town.

By 9am, Maui officials declared the fire “100 per cent contained”, and the firefighters left. But five hours later, Mr Arconado said the same area had reignited.

A video he filmed at 3:06pm shows smoke and embers being carried toward town as howling winds continued to lash the island.

Though experts say the early evidence suggests multiple blazes may have been ignited in and around Lahaina on August 8, there were no recorded lightning strikes or other apparent natural causes for the fires.

Mikal Watts, one of the lawyers behind a lawsuit against the electric company, told the AP this week that he was in Maui, interviewing witnesses and “collecting contemporaneously filmed videos”.

“There is credible evidence, captured on video, that at least one of the powerline ignition sources occurred when trees fell into a Hawaiian Electric powerline,” he said.

The lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit has already been filed seeking to hold Hawaiian Electric responsible for the deaths.

The suit cites the utility’s own documents showing it was aware that pre-emptive power shut offs, such as those used in California, were an effective strategy to prevent wildfires but never adopted them.

Wildfire expert, Michael Wara, says utilities with significant — and especially wind-driven — wildfire risk need to turn the power off despite the inconvenience, and should have a plan in place.

“It may turn out that there are other causes of this fire, and the utility lines are not the main cause,” the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University added.

“But if they are, boy, this didn’t need to happen.”

Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the accusations in the lawsuit or whether it has ever shut down power before due to high winds.

But the company’s president and CEO Shelee Kimura noted at a news conference that many factors influence that decision, including the possible effect on people who rely on specialised medical equipment and firefighters who need power to pump water.

Electrical workers repair power lines leading into the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

Electrical workers repair powerlines leading into the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii.(Reuters: Mike Blake)

“Even in places where this has been used, it is controversial, and it’s not universally accepted,” she said.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier also expressed frustration that people were complaining both that power was not cut off earlier and that too many people were unaccounted-for because of a lack of mobile phone and internet service.

Has it happened before?

If the fires are found to have been ignited by fallen powerlines, it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

In 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, known as the Camp Fire, tore through Butte County in the state’s north after being ignited by a faulty electric transmission line.

The blaze resulted in at least 85 deaths, and in 2020, Pacific Gas & Electric — the company responsible for the infrastructure — pleaded guilty to more than 80 counts of involuntary manslaughter. 

A group of firefighters inspect a burnt out property in northern California.

The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history.(Reuters: Terray Sylvester)

“Our equipment started that fire,” said then CEO Bill Johnson.

“PG&E will never forget the Camp fire and all that it took away from the region.”

The tragedy prompted state regulators to introduce new procedures requiring utilities to turn off the electricity when forecasters predict high winds and dry conditions that might cause fire to spread.

Black Saturday

Powerlines and bushfire risks also came under the microscope after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, which claimed the lives of 173 people.

A royal commission investigating the fires found the state had a “long history of electricity assets causing bushfires”, including major incidents in 1969 and 1977.

A Black Saturday bushfire covers a hillside below the house of Wade Horton at Humevale

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found the Kilmore East blaze was caused by an ageing power line.(Wade Horton)

“This history was repeated on 7 February 2009, when five of the 11 major fires that began that day were caused by failed electricity assets; among the fires was that at Kilmore East, as a result of which 119 people died,” the royal commission’s final report noted.

In the years since, modifications have been made to upgrade Victoria’s electricity assets to reduce powerline bushfire risk.

Spread the news
WP Radio
WP Radio