Bared power lines and crooked poles on Maui were possible causes of deadly fires

Videos and images analyzed by The Associated Press confirmed those lines were among the miles of lines that Hawaiian Electric Co. had exposed to the weather and often dense foliage, though utilities in other wildfire- and hurricane-prone areas had recently attempted to cover them up their lines or bury them.

To make matters worse, many of the utility’s 60,000 utility poles, which are mostly made of wood and described in its own documents as “built to “outdated 1960s standards,”” were leaning and nearing the end of their designed lives. They fell far short of a 2002 national standard that requires key components of Hawaii’s power grid to withstand winds of 105 miles per hour.

A 2019 filing said it had fallen behind on replacing the old wooden poles due to other priorities and warned of a “serious risk to the public” if they “failed”.

Google Street View images of poles taken before the fire show the bare wire.

It was “very unlikely” that a fully insulated wire would have sparked and caused a fire in the dry vegetation, said Michael Ahern, who retired this month as director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Experts watching videos showing fallen power lines agreed that an insulated wire would not have arced or sparked and ignited a line of flames.

Hawaiian Electric said in a statement that it has “long recognized the unique threats” posed by climate change and has spent millions of dollars in response, but did not say whether specific power lines that collapsed in the early moments of the fire were bare.

“We are pursuing a resilience strategy to address these challenges and since 2018 have spent approximately $950 million on strengthening and securing our network and approximately $110 million on vegetation management efforts,” the company said. “This work has included the replacement of more than 12,500 poles and structures since 2018, and the pruning and removal of trees along an average length of approximately 2,500 miles per year.”

But a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission confirmed that many of Maui’s wooden utility poles are in poor condition. Jennifer Potter lives in Lahaina and was a member of the commission that regulates Hawaiian Electric until late last year.

“Even tourists driving around the island ask themselves, ‘What is this?’ They lean quite a bit because the wind has literally knocked them over over time,” she said. “Obviously that’s not going to withstand 60 or 70 mph winds. So the infrastructure just wasn’t strong enough for that kind of storm… The infrastructure itself is just vulnerable.”

John Morgan, a Florida personal injury and trial attorney who lives part-time on Maui, noted the same thing. “I could look at the power poles. They were scrawny, bending and bowing. The electricity kept cutting out.”

Morgan’s law firm is suing Hawaiian Electric on behalf of one person and speaking to many more about their rights. The fire came within 500 meters of the house.

According to Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura, as of Aug. 14, 60 percent of West Maui’s utility poles were down — 450 of the 750 poles.

Hawaiian Electric is facing a spate of new lawsuits aimed at blaming the company for the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century. The confirmed death toll stands at 115, and the county expects that number to rise.

Lawyers plan to inspect some electrical equipment from a neighborhood where the fire is believed to have started as early as next week, according to a court order, but they will do so at a warehouse. The power company dismantled the burned poles and removed fallen lines from the site.

This is an “avoidable tragedy of epic proportions,” said attorney Paul Starita, lead attorney in three of the lawsuits.

“Everything comes down to money,” said Starita of California-based Singleton Schreiber. “They might say, well, it’s taking a long time to get through the permitting process or whatever. OK, start earlier. I mean, people’s lives are at stake. You are responsible. Spend the money, do your job.”

A man views the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 19, 2023. | AP Photo/Jae C Hong

Hawaiian Electric is also facing criticism for not turning off power despite strong wind warnings and keeping it on even as dozens of pylons began to topple over. Maui County sued Hawaiian Electric Thursday over the matter.

Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said of power lines causing so many fires in the United States, “We definitely have a new pattern, we just don’t have a new safety regime to go with it.” .”

Insulating an electrical wire prevents arcing and sparking and dissipates heat.

Other utilities have addressed the bare wire problem. Pacific Gas & Electric was blamed for the 2018 Northern California warehouse fire that killed 85 people. The disaster was caused by failed power lines.

Its fire zone uninsulated wire removal program has included more than 1,200 miles of wire to date.

PG&E also announced in 2021 that it would bury 10,000 miles of power lines. It clocked 180 miles in 2022 and is on track to clock 350 miles this year.

Another major California utility, Southern California Edison, expects to have covered lines replacing more than 7,200 miles, or about 75%, of its overhead lines in high fire risk areas by the end of 2025. He, too, buries lines in highly endangered areas.

Hawaiian Electric said in a filing last year that it was looking into utility companies’ wildfire plans in California.

Some don’t blame Hawaiian Electric for its relative lack of action, since the company hasn’t faced the threat of wildfires that long. And the utility is by no means alone in continuing to use bare metal conductors high up on utility poles.

The same applies to power cuts in public areas. It’s only been a few years since utility companies were willing to preemptively turn off people’s power to prevent fires, and this disruptive practice is not yet widespread.

But Mark Toney said utility-caused wildfires are completely preventable. He is executive director of the tariff payers group The Utility Reform Network in California. She is urging PG&E to isolate its lines in high-risk areas.

“We must stop the wildfires caused by utilities. We need to stop them and the quickest and cheapest way to do that is to isolate the overhead wires,” he said.

As for the poles, the company said in a 2019 Hawaiian Electric regulatory document that its 60,000 poles, almost all wood, were at risk because they were already old and Hawaii was in a “high risk wood rot zone.” The company said it had delayed replacing the wooden poles due to other priorities and warned of a “serious risk to the public” if the poles “failed”.

The document said many of the company’s pylons are built to withstand 56 mph speeds when a Category 1 hurricane has winds of at least 74 mph.

In 2002, the National Electric Safety Code was updated to require Maui-like power poles to withstand winds of 105 miles per hour.

The US power grid was designed and built for the climate of the past century, said Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Utilities would be wise to better prepare for prolonged droughts and strong winds, he added.

“Everyone thinks Hawaii is a tropical paradise, but it got dry and burned,” he said Thursday. “It may look expensive to fight to prevent wildfires from starting or the effects of wildfires, but it’s a lot cheaper than actually starting one and burning down so many people’s homes and causing the deaths of so many people .”

Tony Takitani, a Maui born and raised attorney, is working with Morgan on the lawsuit.

Takitani said it’s getting drier in his 68 years there. He said what happened on the island was so terrible that it was difficult to talk about. But he believes this will force improvements on the web.

“When the poles fall, it’s fireworks,” he said. “I think the combination of what’s going on on our planet and people not being properly prepared for it is what I think is causing it. Living here and looking at the videos I’ve seen of poles collapsing and fires being lit, it kind of seems obvious.”


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Robert Wilson

Business & economics analyst. Breaking down intricate financial trends for informed decision-making.

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