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Hawaiian Electric saw the need to better prepare for fires, but never prioritized it

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On Maui, federal investigators are working to determine what caused the wildfire that killed at least 115 people. Poles and lines from the island's power company, Hawaiian Electric, fell in the high winds. The company is conducting its own investigation. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Hawaiian Electric now faces significant legal and financial challenges.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: No one can say for sure at this point what started the fire that destroyed Lahaina and took so many lives. What is clear is that dozens of poles and the energized lines they held came down in the high winds that fueled the wildfire. And there are people who live in Lahaina who say they saw fires started by those downed lines. One resident, Shane Treu, broadcast video of a downed line and the fire it appears to have started on Facebook Live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANE TREU: See them right there - that's the power line that started it. It started from up the road there, and all of that is still burning.

ALLEN: Power lines have played a big role in sparking other destructive wildfires in California and Oregon, and some experts believe they're likely to have been a major factor in Maui. Jennifer Potter is a former member of Hawaii's Public Utilities Commission which oversees Hawaiian Electric.

JENNIFER POTTER: When these power lines came down, could that have been the cause of the actual sparking and creating this firestorm? There is a high probability that's exactly what happened.

ALLEN: In the days after the fire, residents and reporters had one major question for Hawaiian Electric - why, once the winds picked up, didn't the company shut off the electricity? Here's Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura last week at a news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELEE KIMURA: We, like most utilities, don't have that program. And it's worth noting that even in places where this has been used, it is controversial, and it's not universally accepted.

ALLEN: Kimura was referring to a public safety power shut-off program utilities have adopted in California and some other states. Using weather stations to monitor wind speeds, utilities de-power lines in areas where they're likely to come down and spark fires. The public gets a warning ahead of time so people with medical equipment that needs power can prepare. For residents like Travis Cabanilla Okano, who tried to evacuate as the fire spread through Lahaina, the energized lines that came down were a major obstacle - closing roads and creating a huge traffic jam. He lost his home in the fire and doesn't understand why power wasn't shut off.

TRAVIS CABANILLA OKANO: There should be some kind of protocol that when the lines go down - they should be automatically turned off, but - which it was not, you know? And it's hazardous for, I mean, everybody, you know?

ALLEN: Since at least 2019, Hawaiian Electric recognized the need to improve its wildfire preparedness and began taking some steps to reduce the risk. But it wasn't until last year that the company asked the state's utility commission to allow it to spend nearly $200 million on a significant plan to prepare for threats from climate change including wildfires. Jennifer Potter says that neither the commission nor the utility made it a priority.

POTTER: The idea that we needed to focus more on wildfires was sort of - it was there. We knew that it was an issue. We knew it was a problem, but nobody raised it to the level that we needed to pay that kind of attention.

ALLEN: And the company's 2022 proposal didn't include any plans for a public safety power shut-off program. Michael Wara is a legal expert at Stanford who studies energy policy. He says California's largest utility, PG&E, was forced into bankruptcy after the Paradise Fire in 2018. That, he said, put utilities on notice that a shut-off plan was something they needed.

MICHAEL WARA: It's my opinion that any utility with wildfire risk in their service territory needs to have a public safety power shut-off program, and, like, they need to have a plan. And a failure to plan is a plan to fail.

ALLEN: Hawaiian Electric CEO cited the needs of medically vulnerable people and others in explaining why the company hadn't adopted a power shut-off program. Wara says it requires extensive coordination, but compared with measures like installing upgraded poles and lines, power shut-off programs are relatively inexpensive. While investigations into the origin of the Lahaina fire are just getting underway, lawsuits have already been filed citing the power company, and in at least one case, the county for negligence in failing to address the risk of wildfires. Hawaiian Electric says despite the growing number of lawsuits, it has no plans to file for bankruptcy. Greg Allen, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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