Hawaii’s electric utility company acknowledged its downed power lines started the first wildfire on Maui, but faulted county firefighters who declared the fire contained and left the scene before a second fire broke out in the area.
The company is facing a lawsuit from the county, which blames it for the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
The lawsuit threatens to cripple the electric utility, which in a Sunday statement pointed the finger at the Maui County Fire Department for bearing some responsibility.
The Hawaiian Electric Company said the first fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.”
The company, however, argued that the Maui County Fire Department reported it was “100 percent contained,” left the scene and later declared it extinguished, only to have a second fire flare up in the same area.
“We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court before completing its own investigation,” Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric, said in a statement.
Calling the complaint “factually and legally irresponsible,” Kimura said the lawsuit may leave the utility company “no choice in the legal system but to show [the county’s] responsibility for what happened that day.”
Hawaiian Electric claimed it later came to scene of the first fire to make repairs and ensured the power lines were de-energized and the power in the area remained off. It said crews saw no fire, smoke or embers when making those repairs.
Hawaiian Electric said a cause of that second fire has not been determined, while its records show its power lines to Lahaina were not energized during the second fire.
“There was no electricity flowing through the wires in the area or anywhere else on the West Maui coast,” the company’s statement said.
The company said firefighters were unable to contain the second fire, prompting it to spread out-of-control toward Lahaina.
Maui County’s lawsuit said the Hawaiian Electric Company should have known how “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 so as to prevent contact with overhead power lines and other electric equipment.”
The suit claims the company’s failure to maintain equipment or turn off power during Hurricane Dora’s high winds, combined with drought conditions on the island, made fires from downed lines more likely.
Richard Fired, a Honolulu attorney serving as co-counsel on Maui County’s lawsuit, told The Associated Press that if the electric company’s the power lines hadn’t caused the initial fire, “this all would be moot.”
“That’s the biggest problem,” Fried told AP on Monday. “They can dance around this all they want. But there’s no explanation for that.”
Scott Seu, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric’s parent company, said the lawsuit “distracts from the important work that needs to be done for the people of Lahaina and Maui.”
The wildfires ripped through the island earlier this month, leaving 115 people dead and thousands of structures damaged or destroyed, notably those in the historic Lahaina Town, which took the brunt of destruction.
While firefighters are still working to completely extinguish the fires, Maui County officials assured residents there are no active threats in the three ongoing fires in Olinda, Kula and Lahaina.