Possible Causes of Deadly Fires on Maui: Bare Electrical Wire and Leaning Poles

During the initial moments of the devastating Maui fires, an alarming revelation emerged as a contributing factor to the rapid spread of the flames.

As the fierce winds forcefully toppled power poles, the bare, uninsulated metal wires came into contact with the parched grass below, igniting the dry vegetation in an instant.

This harrowing discovery was substantiated by videos and images meticulously scrutinized by The Associated Press.

Astonishingly, Hawaiian Electric Co., despite the recent efforts of other utility companies in wildfire- and hurricane-prone regions to safeguard their lines by covering or burying them, had left miles of wires exposed to the elements and often obscured by dense foliage.

This egregious oversight was further compounded by the deteriorating state of the utility’s predominantly wooden power poles, as disclosed in their own records, which were constructed based on an outdated standard from the 1960s.

These poles were precariously leaning and perilously close to the end of their projected lifespan, rendering them woefully inadequate in meeting the 2002 national standard that mandated the ability to withstand winds of up to 105 miles per hour for key components of Hawaii’s electrical grid.

In a 2019 filing, it was acknowledged that the timely replacement of old wooden poles had been neglected due to the allocation of resources towards other pressing matters.

This revelation was accompanied by a grave warning of a potential “serious public hazard” that could arise in the event of the poles’ failure.

Such a situation would undoubtedly pose significant risks to the safety and well-being of the community. Furthermore, the gravity of this issue is further underscored by Google street view images captured prior to the fire, which depict the presence of bare wires on these poles.

This visual evidence not only substantiates the concerns raised but also serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for proactive measures to address this critical infrastructure concern.

According to Michael Ahern, the former director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, it is highly improbable that a fully-insulated cable would have initiated a fire in dry vegetation.

Ahern’s expertise in the field lends credibility to his assertion, as he retired this month after a distinguished career in power systems.

Additionally, experts who closely examined videos depicting downed power lines have concurred with Ahern’s assessment, asserting that if the wire had been properly insulated, it would not have arced and subsequently sparked, thereby avoiding the ignition of a line of flame.

This consensus among experts further strengthens the argument against the likelihood of a fully-insulated cable causing a fire in such circumstances.

Hawaiian Electric, in a formal statement, acknowledged the distinct and unparalleled challenges posed by climate change, emphasizing its long-standing recognition of these threats.

The company further highlighted its commitment to addressing the issue by investing significant amounts of money in response efforts.

However, it notably refrained from explicitly stating whether the power lines that succumbed to collapse during the initial stages of the fire were bare. This omission raises questions regarding the potential role of these power lines in the incident and the subsequent spread of the fire.

As such, further investigation and clarification are necessary to ascertain the precise circumstances surrounding this unfortunate event.

The company has acknowledged the challenges it has faced and has implemented a resilience strategy to address them. In order to strengthen and fortify its grid, the company has invested approximately $950 million since 2018.

Additionally, around $110 million has been allocated towards vegetation management efforts. These initiatives have involved the replacement of over 12,500 poles and structures since 2018, as well as the regular trimming and removal of trees along approximately 2,500 line miles each year on average.

However, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, Jennifer Potter, has confirmed that many of Maui’s wooden power poles are in poor condition.

Potter, who resided in Lahaina and was a part of the commission until the previous year, stated that the poles are visibly leaning due to the strong winds that have pushed them over time.

This compromised infrastructure is unable to withstand windstorms with speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour.

John Morgan, a distinguished personal injury and trial attorney based in Florida, who also enjoys spending a significant portion of his time in the beautiful island of Maui, observed a recurring issue that caught his attention.

As he gazed upon the landscape, his keen eye was drawn to the power poles that stood tall and slender, but noticeably vulnerable, as if they were gracefully bending and bowing under the weight of their responsibility.

It became apparent to John that the power supply in the area was far from reliable, as frequent outages plagued the region, disrupting the daily lives of its inhabitants. This realization sparked a deep concern within him, prompting him to delve into the matter further.

In light of recent events, Morgan’s firm has taken legal action against Hawaiian Electric on behalf of an individual affected by the devastating wildfire, while also engaging in discussions with numerous other individuals to address their rights in this matter.

The severity of the situation becomes apparent as it is revealed that the fire came dangerously close, within a mere 500 yards, of a residential property.

Adding to the gravity of the situation, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura revealed during a media conference that as of August 14th, a staggering 60% of the utility poles in West Maui remained toppled, accounting for 450 out of a total of 750 poles.

Consequently, Hawaiian Electric finds itself confronted with a wave of fresh lawsuits that aim to hold the company accountable for the deadliest wildfire the United States has witnessed in over a century.

With the current death toll standing at 115, the county anticipates this number to further increase, underscoring the magnitude of the tragedy and the urgency for justice to be served.

Lawyers have made arrangements to conduct an inspection of certain electrical equipment from a neighborhood, which is believed to be the source of the fire, in the upcoming week, as mandated by a court order.

However, it should be noted that this inspection will take place within a warehouse instead of the actual site. The utility company responsible for the incident has already taken down the burnt poles and removed the fallen wires from the area.

Attorney Paul Starita, who is serving as the lead counsel on three of the lawsuits pertaining to this case, has expressed his opinion that this tragic event could have been prevented, emphasizing the magnitude of its consequences.

In the realm of corporate accountability and public safety, the underlying motivation that often emerges as the driving force behind decision-making processes is none other than money.

This sentiment is echoed by Starita, a representative from the esteemed California firm Singleton Schreiber, who astutely observes, “It all comes back to money.” While some entities may attempt to justify delays in the permitting process or other bureaucratic hurdles, Starita advocates for a proactive approach, urging them to commence their tasks earlier.

The stakes are high, as people’s lives hang in the balance, and it is the responsibility of these entities to fulfill their obligations. Starita emphasizes the importance of allocating the necessary financial resources and executing their duties accordingly.

Another entity that has faced criticism in recent times is Hawaiian Electric, which has come under fire for its failure to cut off power during high wind warnings, despite the visible signs of danger, such as numerous poles toppling over.

The gravity of this situation prompted Maui County to take legal action against Hawaiian Electric, filing a lawsuit on Thursday. This move highlights the growing discontent and frustration with the company’s negligence, as it jeopardizes the safety and well-being of the community it serves.

In both instances, the central theme revolves around the prioritization of financial considerations over the welfare of individuals and the community at large.

The call for action is clear – entities must recognize their responsibility and commit the necessary resources to ensure the safety and security of those they serve. The consequences of inaction or negligence are severe, potentially resulting in devastating outcomes that could have been prevented with proper planning, timely decision-making, and a genuine commitment to public safety.

It is imperative that these entities heed the criticism and take immediate steps to rectify their shortcomings, as the stakes are simply too high to ignore.

In light of the increasing number of fires caused by power lines in the United States, Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has emphasized the urgent need for a new safety regime to address this concerning pattern.

With his extensive expertise in the field of energy, Jacobs highlights that the frequency of these incidents indicates a shift in the landscape of power line safety.

As power lines continue to pose a significant risk to both human lives and the environment, it becomes imperative for policymakers and relevant authorities to implement comprehensive measures to mitigate these hazards effectively.

While the existing safety protocols may have been sufficient in the past, the emergence of this new pattern necessitates a reevaluation of current practices and the development of a more robust safety regime that can effectively prevent power line-related fires.

Insulating an electrical wire is crucial in preventing arcing and sparking, as well as dissipating heat. The issue of bare wire has been a concern for various utility companies, particularly in regions prone to wildfires.

One such company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), was held responsible for the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which claimed the lives of 85 individuals.

In response, PG&E initiated a program to eliminate uninsulated wire in fire zones, successfully covering over 1,200 miles of line to date.

Additionally, the company announced its plan to bury 10,000 miles of electrical line, burying 180 miles in 2022 and aiming for 350 miles this year.

Another major California utility, Southern California Edison, aims to replace approximately 75% of its overhead distribution lines, amounting to more than 7,200 miles, with covered wire in high fire risk areas by the end of 2025. This utility is also actively burying lines in areas at severe risk.

Hawaiian Electric, taking cues from California utilities, has recognized the need for wildfire plans and actions.

While some may not fault Hawaiian Electric for its comparatively slower response, given the relatively recent threat of wildfires, the use of bare metal conductors on power poles remains a concern. The practice of preemptively shutting off power to prevent fires, known as public safety power shutoffs, is still not widespread and has only gained traction in recent years.

Mark Toney, the executive director of The Utility Reform Network in California, emphasizes the preventability of utility-caused wildfires and advocates for the insulation of overhead lines in high-risk areas.

The vulnerability of power poles is another critical aspect. In a regulatory document, Hawaiian Electric highlights the susceptibility of its 60,000 wood poles, citing their age and the severe wood decay hazard zone in Hawaii.

The company acknowledges falling behind in pole replacement due to competing priorities and warns of a potential public hazard if the poles were to fail.

While the poles were designed to withstand wind speeds of 56 mph, the National Electric Safety Code updated in 2002 requires utility poles to endure winds of 105 mph. Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, underscores the need for utilities to prepare for prolonged droughts and high winds, as the U.S. electrical grid was designed for the climate of the past century.

Despite Hawaii’s reputation as a tropical paradise, the increasing dryness and wildfires necessitate proactive measures. Tony Takitani, an attorney with deep roots in Maui, acknowledges the worsening dry conditions and believes that the catastrophic events will compel improvements to the grid.

He describes the vulnerability of fallen poles as potential kindling, attributing the combination of environmental changes and inadequate preparation as the underlying cause of the situation.