Hawaiian Electric filing blames Maui County

May 29—1/1

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In a new court filing, Hawaiian Electric Co. alleges Maui County did nothing to prepare for the known threat posed by high winds and drought conditions that can rapidly spread fires. HECO crews replaced utility poles burned in the Aug. 8 fires on Nahale Place in Lahaina.

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Maui officials failed to clear excessive invasive vegetation before fires killed 101 people in Lahaina on Aug. 8, did not plan for the catastrophe and "fumbled the emergency response," according to a counterclaim filed by Hawaiian Electric.

The response in Maui Circuit Court on Friday by the utility came nine months after an filed by attorneys for Maui County blamed HECO for causing the fire that destroyed Lahaina and left thousands homeless.

The utility alleged the county knew for at least a decade the threat posed by high winds and drought conditions that turn plant life into kindling but did nothing to prepare for it.

HECO's attorneys also criticized the county for failing to use the All-Hazard Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System on Aug. 8, noting that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency "reminded MEMA that sirens could be used to alert residents of wildfires."

The 42-page filing details county officials' alleged negligence for failing to remove vegetation and invasive grasses, being "entirely unprepared" for the emergency Aug. 8, a "woefully unprepared" water system and an emergency response with "no clear chain of command."

"While Lahaina was still smoldering, many, including the County of Maui, rushed to lay blame for the fire at the feet of Hawaiian Electric. But with time, the truth has emerged: it is the County of Maui that bears responsibility for the devastation done to West Maui on August 8 in numerous, often independent ways," wrote Joachim P. Cox, an attorney for the utility. "By failing to act within its authority to curtail invasive vegetation, by failing to properly plan for an emergency, by fumbling the emergency response, and by other means described herein, the County caused this tragedy."

The cause and origin of the Aug. 8 fire have yet to be determined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety.

Maui Corporation Counsel Victoria J. Takayesu told the Star-Advertiser in a statement that officials are "dismayed by the cross claim filed by HECO against the County."

"The County stands with the people of Maui in seeking an efficient and fair resolution of these legal issues. These cross claims do not bring us closer to that result," said Takayesu.

HECO's response to the county's lawsuit listed multiple instances where warnings about the fire threat in West Maui were made a priority for county planners who allegedly did little.

The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization in 2014 issued the Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which identified "highly ignitable invasive grasses" as a key wildfire risk factor in West Maui, with the risk to Lahaina described as "extreme," according to the court filing.

The 2014 plan also said that "abundant fire fuels and heavy winds in the lowland coastal areas promote rapid spread of fires, quickly endangering historical sites, recreational areas, forested watersheds, grazing lands, homes, and community infrastructure."

The 2014 plan adopted the reduction of fuels on fallow lands as a "priority action" plan by grazing, weed-whipping, mowing, hand-pulling, herbicide and reforestation.

The wildfire during Tropical Cyclone Lane that burned homes and prompted evacuations in 2018 provided another opportunity for the Maui Emergency Management Agency and county officials to prepare Lahaina for a major fire, HECO claims.

Invasive grasses were cited as a highly significant factor in the spread of the fires as "non-native, fire-prone grass- and shrublands accounted for more than 85% of the area burned" and that wind "can develop especially rapidly in the fine, grassy fuels that dominated the burn areas" in West Maui.

Maui's then-Fire Chief David Thyne warned the county Fire and Public Safety Commission that the Hurricane Lane fires had "reinforced a need for vegetation management" because the non-native grasses, coupled with strong winds, led his deputy to describe the Hurricane Lane fires as "some of the most adverse the Maui Fire Department has faced in recent history," according to the HECO filing.

Maui firefighters did not determine the cause of the 2018 fire, according to the court filing, but in an internal post-fire report, firefighters described "being outrun by flames that advanced hundreds of yards at a time, barreling downhill and jumping the highway, and said more prevention measures were needed."

The next year, Maui saw the number of wildfires quadruple, prompting Thyne to explain to commissioners that since the decline of the agriculture industry, Maui had "been threatened many, many times by fires that started in the former cane fields," referring specifically to Lahaina's "vulnerable flank."

Thyne described the spread of one of those fires to commissioners at the time as "the scariest thing I've seen in my life."

Also in 2019 the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization again noted excess vegetation, and the county adopted its findings and attached them to the its Wildfire Prevention Report in 2021, according to the counterclaim, which also highlighted fire prevention as a "key gap" in firefighters' existing plans.

The HECO filing listed a report in 2022 identifying the risk of excessive vegetation and other examples of fires, and public documents that noted the risk that Lahaina could be consumed by a fast-moving fire.

"Since at least 2014, scientists, nonprofit groups, and disaster specialists had warned the County of the increasing wildfire risk in West Maui. Despite those warnings, on August 8, the County had no effective plans in place to protect Lahaina," Cox wrote.

The filing by HECO characterized the Lahaina evacuation as "completely mismanaged."

No widespread evacuations were ordered, and residents were "encouraged to remain in Lahaina as the fires approached."

Police closed the Lahaina Bypass route out of town, and at 5:03 p.m. the county posted on social media site X that residents should not evacuate, but instead should "shelter in place."

"In short, not only did the County not urge residents of Lahaina to leave, it explicitly urged them to stay," wrote Cox.

HECO's vice president of government and community relations, Jim Kelly, told the Star-Advertiser in a statement that the Lahaina fire is a "terrible tragedy for Maui, the state, and the country."

"The loss and devastation are personal to Hawaiian Electric, whose employees, neighbors and customers lost homes and loved ones. Hawaiian Electric is working closely with others across the state to do the hard work necessary to recover and rebuild, even as we advance our efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfire in the state," said Kelly. "At the same time, we have an obligation to protect the interests of our customers, employees and other stakeholders, including through the litigation process. On August 24, only 16 days after the fires, the County of Maui filed lawsuits against HEI and Hawaiian Electric. While others were focused on restoration efforts and caring for the people impacted by the fires, the county was rushing to court to lay blame. This was not the path we would have chosen — but they put us in this position to demonstrate their responsibility through the legal process."

Since the fatal fires, a "great deal of work has been done to understand the many contributing factors that led to this tragedy," and he said the county's contributions to the tragedy are detailed in the court filing.

"While the County's firefighters, police officers and other first responders attempted to address the fires on August 8, they were impeded by the County's failure to plan for such an event or equip them with the proper equipment," said Kelly. "All parties must take accountability for their actions. As we have noted before, there is a litigation path in court and there is a separate recovery path on the ground on Maui where Hawaiian Electric employees are continuing to work every day with their state and county counterparts and community members."