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LAHINA, Hawaii – The Hawaii power utility believed to have started the deadly Lahaina fire removed damaged power poles and other equipment from the main fire site, potentially affecting evidence that part of an official investigation into how the fire started.
Hawaiian Electric – which took quick action to restore power to the island after August 8 – removed downed poles, power lines, transformers, conductors and other equipment near the Lahaina substation around August 12, documents show, federal The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived at the scene before investigators arrived. ATF usually responds to bombings and shootings. This is only the agency’s third wildfire investigation, a spokesman said. Typically, this is the role of the US Forest Service, but since the Maui fire was not on any national forest land, the ATF is the primary federal investigative force.
According to court documents, letters and other records, those actions violated national guidelines on how utilities should handle and preserve evidence after wildfires and denied investigators any evidence before or after the fire. Haven’t had an opportunity to see poles or downed lines. Retrieved by The Washington Post.
Michael Vara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford, said, “If a lot of the equipment has already moved or is gone by the time the investigators arrive, that’s problematic because you want to see where the equipment is relative to the ignition site.” Where was it?” university. “There may be a homeless shelter, children or a power line down on the ground where the fire started. But once you remove these things it becomes very difficult to understand what happened.
In a statement, Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai said the company “is in regular communication with the ATF and local authorities and has provided them, as well as attorneys representing those affected by the wildfires, with a list of removed equipment and access to cooperating to provide. Which we have meticulously photographed, documented and archived.”
While the cause of the Lahaina fire — as well as others in the upcountry region of Maui — is still under investigation, there is growing evidence that Hawaiian Electric’s wind-damaged equipment may have ignited dry, overgrown vegetation around its poles. Sent the spark
As The Post first reported, the utility did not shut off power in advance of the high winds, though it said it had taken some other preventive measures. Now, it faces at least nine lawsuits for its role in allegedly igniting the Maui wildfires that destroyed Lahaina and killed at least 115 people in the country’s deadliest fire in a century. also includes.
One of them was filed Thursday by Maui County, which is suing the utility for “inexcusably” not shutting off power, warning that high winds were coming, and damaging equipment and surrounding vegetation. were not maintained properly so as to “properly ensure that they would not cause fire”.
ATF investigators arrived on the island last week to help “determine the origin and cause of the wildfires there”. But by then, utility crews had cleared most of the site near the substation off Lahinaluna Road and damaged equipment had been moved to a warehouse.
Unlike California, Hawaii does not have a state fire agency like Cal Fire that immediately deploys investigators to the sites of fires to preserve evidence. Such investigators help secure important details at the scene of a fire, Experts said, such as flash marks on the conductors, or globs of aluminum or copper that may have melted and fallen into the brushes below.
Since August 10, a law firm representing more than two dozen Lahaina families has asked Hawaiian Electric twice to preserve evidence, according to correspondence obtained by The Post. The next day, one of the utility’s attorneys responded that Hawaiian Electric’s main focus was the safety of first responders actively fighting the fire, displaced residents, and restoring power.
The company said it is “taking appropriate steps to preserve its assets.” However, because so many local, state and federal agencies were on the ground fighting the fire and removing debris, it was “possible, even likely” that the actions of these third parties, whose actions over which Hawaiian Electric has no control, may result.” In the loss of property or other things relating to the cause of fire.
“Hawaiian Electric will take reasonable steps to preserve evidence, but cannot make any guarantees due to the rapidly evolving situation on the ground, which is also beyond our control,” the letter said.
In response, lawyers immediately submitted a temporary restraining order preventing Hawaiian Electric from altering the scene where it is believed the first fire in Lahaina started, court documents show.
On August 18, a judge signed an interim search order detailing how the utility should handle evidence surrounding a “suspected area of origin”.
There is a procedure for how utilities should handle a location where it is believed a fire has occurred. The National Fire Protection Association states that “the integrity of the fire site needs to be preserved. … evidence should not be handled or removed without documentation” and the scene is cordoned off with tape or flags.
Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission, which oversees Hawaiian Electric, has yet to comment on the fire. It also did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the past two weeks on whether the commission, through its investigative arm, is probing what may have led to them.
Former Utilities Commissioner Jenny Potter, who retired nine months ago, said: “The commission is completely silent on this whole development which is extremely disappointing.”
In court documents and letters from Hawaiian Electric, the utility said it removed the equipment because the company “does not own or control the land or public roads beneath its facilities in this area.”
As of August 12, the utility had retained Munger Tolles & Olson — the same law firm that represented Pacific Gas & Electric, the beleaguered California utility found responsible for starting the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.
The utility said in order to “preserve possible evidence related to the fire”, it hired a California-based “cause and origin expert” – who also helped PG&E on several Northern California fires – to investigate a warehouse. Handling the removal of equipment.
Many experts and financial analysts are comparing the case of Hawaiian Electric to that of PG&E, California’s largest utility and one of the largest investor-owned electric utilities in the United States. It filed for bankruptcy in 2019, facing billions of dollars in liability claims for the Camp Fire and other deadly wildfires.
California utility officials also imposed fines. PG&E and SoCal Edison for not altering or properly preserving evidence after the fire before investigators arrived.
PG&E isn’t the only utility that has faced legal troubles for removing evidence from the scene of a fire. Following a devastating fire in Oregon in 2020, a class-action lawsuit was filed against PacificCorp for the fire. The case focuses on destruction of evidence by the utility, said Timothy DeJong, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. In June, a jury found that the utility was instrumental in triggering those blazes and owed the plaintiffs $73 million.
“The experts had no chance to review the physical evidence,” DeJong said. “As a result, much of the evidence about the cause came from eyewitnesses who saw power lines rise and sparks or flames.”
The filing shows that Hawaiian Electric was aware of PG&E’s troubles. Last summer, she noted that utility companies can be held liable when it comes to wildfires that start or spread, and cited PG&E’s “$15 billion settlement” with victims as an example. “The risk of wildfires caused by a utility system is significant,” the company wrote.
Residents living near where the fire started say the power company responded quickly. When Ryan Guzmen returned to his home on Lahinaluna Road on August 11, he said that a nearby broken pole, which had lost its top, had been fixed.
On the afternoon of August 12, a Post reporter visited the area where residents say the initial fire is seen burning in the video. In a dirt alley in front of the Hawaiian Electric substation, a damaged pole lay on the ground, its top perched haphazardly on some nearby trees, lines coiled and a pole slung around it. Experts examining the photos questioned why the material had been left there without being tagged or taped from the public. About a week later, that device died.
In comparison, according to a report by the Butte County District Attorney, within hours of the Camp Fire starting, Calfire arson investigators arrived at PG&E’s transmission towers, where they suspected the fire had started and looked at the burned path of the fire. The land was assessed. “Upon looking up, investigators found a separate line dangling from the steel superstructure of the high-voltage transmission tower,” the report said. He immediately started the investigation.
In a news conference last week, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelley Kimura said that 400 of West Maui’s 750 poles were damaged or destroyed in the storm and the fire, and 300 of 575 transformers were apparently damaged. The substation at Lahainaluna Road was destroyed.
Data from Whisker Labs, a company that uses an advanced sensor network to monitor grids across the United States, found several incidents in the power grid late on August 7 that caused power outages. The data shows that the power came back on the next day at 6:10 am and then went off again at 6:39 am. According to residents, a grass fire broke out near the Lahinaluna substation at the same time. Maui Fire Dept.
A spokesperson for the Maui Fire Department said that crews had the fire under control and “cleaned up” around 12:45 p.m. The engines departed at 12:47, which was a “reasonable amount of time”, he said, and Two other fires were burning on the island seeking to draw their attention.
At 2:55 p.m., several residents remembered smelling smoke and two called 911. The Maui Fire Department confirmed those calls and said an engine in the area was on the scene within five minutes. At first, firefighters got the blaze under control, but gusts of wind drove the flames down the hill in front of them.
It was that fire that ravaged the town of Lahaina, resulting in one of the most destructive and deadliest fires ever to occur in Hawaii.