Hawaii’s electric utility acknowledged its power lines started a wildfire on Maui but faulted county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene, only to have a second wildfire break out nearby and become the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.
Hawaiian Electric Company released a statement Sunday night in response to Maui County’s lawsuit blaming the utility for failing to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions. Hawaiian Electric called that complaint “factually and legally irresponsible,” and said its power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours before the second blaze started.
In its statement, the utility addressed the cause for the first time. It said the fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” The Associated Press reported Saturday that bare electrical wire that could spark on contact and leaning poles on Maui were the possible cause.
But Hawaiian Electric appeared to blame Maui County for most of the devastation — the fact that the fire appeared to reignite that afternoon and tore through downtown Lahaina, killing at least 115 people and destroying 2,000 structures.
Neither a county spokesperson and nor its lawyers immediately responded to a request for comment early Monday about Hawaiian Electric’s statement.
The Maui County Fire Department responded to the morning fire, reported it was “100% contained,” left the scene and later declared it had been “extinguished,” Hawaiian Electric said.
Hawaiian Electric said its crews then went to the scene to make repairs and did not see fire, smoke or embers. The power to the area was off. Around 3 p.m., those crews saw a small fire in a nearby field and called 911.
Hawaiian Electric rejected the basis of the Maui County lawsuit, saying its power lines had been de-energized for more than six hours by that time, and the cause of the afternoon fire has not been determined.