The investigation into the tragic Maui wildfire that occurred last month has brought attention to the melted remains of an old car tire, heavily burned trees, and a charred stump of an abandoned utility pole.
These pieces of evidence have become crucial in determining the cause of the fire, which initially started as a small blaze due to downed power lines and was declared extinguished. However, hours later, it unexpectedly reignited into a devastating inferno.
Investigators are now focusing their attention on an overgrown gully located beneath Hawaiian Electric Co. power lines, suspecting that it may have harbored smoldering embers from the initial fire.
These embers, fueled by high winds, ultimately transformed into a formidable wall of flame that rapidly engulfed the town of Lahaina, resulting in the destruction of thousands of structures and the tragic loss of at least 97 lives.
As the investigation into the catastrophic U.S. wildfire continues, it has become evident that the right-of-way belonging to Hawaiian Electric was left untrimmed and unkempt for several years.
This revelation is particularly concerning considering that the area in question was classified as being at high risk for wildfires. The consequences of such negligence are now painfully apparent, as the wildfire has claimed numerous lives and caused extensive damage to both property and the environment.
The failure to properly maintain the right-of-way not only allowed for the spread of the wildfire but also raises questions about the responsibility of companies and organizations in mitigating the risks associated with such disasters.
It is imperative that those responsible for the upkeep of these areas take proactive steps to ensure that they are adequately maintained and that appropriate measures are put in place to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
The aerial and satellite imagery analyzed by The Associated Press provides a revealing glimpse into the state of a gully that has been plagued by overgrown vegetation, including thick grass, shrubs, small trees, and an accumulation of trash.
This neglected condition, exacerbated by a severe summer drought, transformed the area into a dangerously combustible landscape.
Post-fire photographs vividly depict the aftermath, with charred foliage still standing at a staggering height of over 10 feet within the utility company’s designated right-of-way.
Gemsley Balagso, a long-term resident of Lahaina, attests to the lack of maintenance, having observed the gully for two decades without witnessing any mowing activities.
Balagso, who captured video footage on August 8th, recounts the harrowing experience as the flames were rekindled and fueled by hurricane winds originating from the nearby offshore area.
With the ferocious winds gusting downhill at an astonishing speed of 90 miles per hour (145 km/h), the fire rapidly engulfed the surroundings, passing Balagso’s house in less than a minute.
Although it may take several months before conclusive findings are reached, the attention focused on Hawaiian Electric’s management of brush in its right-of-way has the potential to strengthen claims of negligence against the utility.
Currently facing a barrage of lawsuits that blame it for failing to proactively cut electricity during high-wind warnings, upgrade its power poles, and clear foliage from around its lines, Hawaiian Electric has acknowledged that its downed lines caused the initial fire.
However, in court filings, the company argues that it cannot be held responsible for the subsequent flare-up as its lines had been turned off for hours by the time the fire reignited and spread through the town.
Instead, the utility seeks to shift the blame to Maui County fire officials, claiming that their premature and false claim of extinguishing the first fire was the cause. The county, on the other hand, denies any negligence on the part of its firefighters.
Since adopting this position in late August, Hawaiian Electric’s beleaguered stock has rebounded by more than a third, as investors speculate that the company will survive the legal battle over liability for the disaster, which is estimated to have caused $5.5 billion in damage.
When questioned about the overgrown gully, Hawaiian Electric responded in a statement to AP that its right-of-way allows it to remove anything that interferes with its lines and could potentially cause an outage. However, it clarified that it does not have the authority to enter private property for landscaping or grass-mowing purposes.
The landowner, Kamehameha Schools, which is also named in litigation over the Maui fire, informed AP that it has no control over and cannot interfere with Hawaiian Electric’s equipment in the right-of-way. Nevertheless, the schools stated that they had never objected to the utility conducting work to ensure the area’s safety in relation to its poles and lines.
The issue at hand has become a topic of intense debate and disagreement. According to national standards, utilities are not explicitly required to clear vegetation unless it poses a threat by reaching their power lines.
However, fire science experts argue that in areas prone to wildfires, utilities should take additional measures to eliminate excess brush that could potentially serve as fuel for a fire.
This difference in opinion highlights the complexity of the situation, as it necessitates a careful balance between adhering to established regulations and implementing proactive measures to mitigate the risk of wildfires.
While national standards provide a baseline for utility companies, it is crucial to consider the insights and recommendations put forth by fire science experts to ensure the safety and well-being of communities residing in wildfire-prone regions.
By going beyond the minimum requirements, utilities can play an instrumental role in preventing and minimizing the devastating impact of wildfires.
CLUES IN THE INVESTIGATION
The ongoing investigation conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Maui County has been shrouded in secrecy, as both agencies have chosen not to disclose specific details.
However, the Associated Press (AP) has had the opportunity to review a collection of over 950 photographs taken last month, which depict ATF and Maui investigators meticulously scouring the gully area.
These photographs reveal the investigators marking items with yellow tape, meticulously examining splintered power poles, severed electrical lines, and other pieces of evidence.
The AP obtained these photographs from Morgan & Morgan, a law firm representing residents who lost their homes and are currently suing Hawaiian Electric.
Notably, three fire science experts who analyzed the photographs for the AP identified several potential ignition sources for the rekindled fire.
These findings included a heavily charred and hollowed 4-foot-tall stump of a utility pole, which was marked with yellow tape, extracted from the ground using a crane, and transported to an evidence warehouse.
Additionally, investigators scrutinized two extensively burned trees and piles of rocks strewn with debris, including the remnants of an old car tire, with its frayed steel belts piercing through melted rubber.
According to experts, the right-of-way area where the fire occurred was identified as having potential spots where embers could remain active.
These larger objects, such as stumps and roots, were particularly noticeable because the second fire broke out several hours later. It is well-known that stumps and roots can sustain smoldering embers for extended periods, sometimes even weeks.
Vyto Babrauskas, a renowned specialist in smoldering fires, explained that smaller twigs, with a diameter of a quarter-inch, would not likely smolder for five hours due to insufficient fuel.
However, larger objects like tree stumps or power pole stumps could certainly continue to smolder. In this case, Hawaiian Electric stated that the old pole stump had been left behind when a new pole was installed beside it.
The company did not provide any information on whether it is their standard practice to leave old poles in place after replacement.
In response to ATF investigators’ request, the charred stump was eventually removed, although the utility company also collected a significant amount of material from the area as a precautionary measure.
TIMELINE OF TWO FIRES
The ongoing investigation into the devastating fire that occurred between the first and second flare-ups has honed in on a critical 36-minute interval, during which fire crews departed the scene and the initial 911 calls reporting the fire’s rekindling were made.
Videos captured by two Lahaina homeowners on August 8 revealed that powerful winds had caused utility poles and lines along Lahainaluna Road to snap, resulting in the ignition of tall grass and brush below.
Maui County firefighters promptly arrived and commenced their efforts to extinguish the flames. By 10 a.m., the 3-acre blaze was deemed fully contained.
Firefighters continued to douse the area with 23,000 gallons of water, and upon observing no further signs of smoke or flame, they declared the fire extinguished and left at 2:18 p.m.
However, at 2:50 p.m., a resident named Balagso, who lived in close proximity to where the power lines had snapped, witnessed smoke billowing from the overgrown gully next to his yard.
He promptly dialed 911 at 2:54 p.m. and began recording a video that captured the sight of orange flames leaping from the gully.
Firefighters swiftly returned to the area, but their efforts were in vain as the fire had already gained significant momentum.
Despite attacking the fire with water from both ends of the gully, the strong winds caused embers to fly over the firefighters’ heads, igniting a field of tall grass behind them.
The ferocity of the winds rendered the firefighters helpless, as they were unable to contain the rapidly spreading flames. In a matter of minutes, the fire traversed the field and leaped over the four-lane Lahaina Bypass, engulfing homes on the other side.
It continued its destructive path, consuming Lahaina’s historic downtown area until it reached the ocean. The fire moved with such alarming speed that numerous residents were compelled to seek refuge in the sea.
Balagso, who was interviewed by investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), expressed uncertainty regarding the cause of the fire’s rekindling in the gully.
However, he dismissed the possibility of the abandoned utility pole stump being the source, as he had observed it in Hawaiian Electric’s right-of-way for the past two decades.
According to Balagso, the flames originated further uphill and had already gained momentum by the time they reached the stump, which continued to burn until approximately 5 p.m., when he managed to extinguish it using a garden hose.
Hawaiian Electric has faced previous scrutiny for its potential role in sparking a wildfire in the same area. In 2018, a brush fire erupted nearby during strong winds caused by a passing hurricane, resulting in the destruction of 21 buildings.
Although officials were unable to definitively determine the cause, an investigative report obtained by the AP indicated that Hawaiian Electric’s power lines could not be ruled out.
The company’s track record in vegetation management has also come under scrutiny. Public regulatory filings reveal a history of Hawaiian Electric falling behind in clearing grass and shrubs from under its lines on the Kamehameha tract, a practice known as “vegetation management” in the electricity industry.
An external audit conducted in 2020 by Munro Tulloch highlighted that the company consistently failed to meet its goals for clearing vegetation from its rights-of-way and urgently needed to address issues with the way it measured progress.
The audit found that Hawaiian Electric tracked expenses related to clearing and tree trimming but lacked essential metrics such as the volume of vegetation removed or the miles of right-of-way cleared. In response to the audit, the utility claimed to have undergone a complete transformation of its trimming program, investing $110 million in vegetation clearance over the past five years.
The company now utilizes detailed maps to identify critical areas and tracks outages caused by trees and branches. However, it was also reported that Hawaiian Electric had fallen significantly behind schedule in replacing leaning poles that were nearing the end of their projected lifespan.
Much of the utility’s aging infrastructure did not meet the 2002 national standard requiring key components to withstand winds of up to 105 mph (169 km/h).
In June of last year, Hawaiian Electric submitted a $190 million plan to regulators aimed at strengthening its electric grid against climate change, which included the hardening or replacement of 80 critical poles on Maui. However, the approval for this plan is still pending after fourteen months.
The utility has stated that it is thoroughly examining every decision and tactic employed to address the wildfire threat on Maui and emphasizes that it took the threat seriously, despite confident assertions from external sources regarding the company’s actions or lack thereof.