Hawaiian Electric Co. must be held accountable for the billions of dollars in damages to public property caused by the deadly Lahaina and Kula fires this month, Maui County said in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Hawaii state court that asserts the utility's downed power lines sparked the blaze.
When the National Weather Service issued a "fire weather watch" on Aug. 6 and a red flag warning for an increased risk of fire danger on Aug. 7, Hawaiian Electric negligently failed to power down its electrical equipment, and live power lines then fell and ignited dry grass and brush that set off the Lahaina, Kula and Olinda fires, according to the complaint.
Despite the weather service's warnings that damaging winds from Hurricane Dora could knock down power lines and that any fires would likely spread quickly, Hawaiian Electric and its affiliate Maui Electric Co. "inexcusably kept their power lines energized during the forecasted high-fire danger conditions," the county said.
"Defendants' inactions caused loss of life, severe injuries, complete destruction of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai'i's historic and cultural sites," it added, noting that damages from the Lahaina fire alone are estimated at upwards of $5 billion.
About 10:45 p.m. on Aug. 7, security camera footage at the Maui Bird Conservation Center recorded a bright flash in the woods, which the county claims came at the same time a significant fault — usually when a power line comes into contact with something — was recorded in Hawaiian Electric's grid.
Not long after, the Olinda fire came to life, burning through more than 1,000 acres in the community of Kula, according to the suit.
Then the Lahaina fire, which first ignited around 6:40 a.m. on Aug. 8, burned through the capital of the former Hawaiian Kingdom and damaged more than 2,000 acres, destroying homes, businesses, schools, churches and cultural sites, the complaint states. Several historic structures and landmarks were damaged or destroyed in the blaze, including the Lahaina Heritage Museum, according to the suit.
The fire has claimed the lives of 115 people, while leaving others with severe burns and smoke inhalation injuries, the county said.
The Kula fire ignited around 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, burning through more than 200 acres and destroying at least 15 structures, the suit states.
As early as Aug. 4, the National Weather Service in Honolulu posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that Hawaii could experience indirect impacts from Hurricane Dora from Aug. 7 through Aug. 9, including strong trade winds and a high-fire danger, according to the complaint. The weather service issued more warnings in the days following and Hawaiian Electric knew that the high winds could topple power lines and potentially ignite vegetation, the suit states.
As an electric utility, Hawaiian Electric was "engaged in dangerous activity" and "owed a heightened duty of care to the public to avoid foreseeable risks attendant to this activity, including the risk of fire," the county said. But the company failed in its obligations, according to the suit.
The practice of shutting down power lines during fire weather conditions is common across the western U.S., the suit states, noting that Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric and other California utilities have all implemented power shut-offs during red flag and high wind events.
Hawaiian Electric, on the other hand, has never created a public safety power shut-off plan, despite knowing power shut-off is an effective strategy to prevent wildfires, the complaint states.
The suit, which also names as defendants Hawai'i Electric Light Co. and Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., lists claims of negligence, gross negligence, nuisance and ultrahazardous activity, among others.
The county seeks damages for all property damage, repair or replacement of damaged or destroyed property, debris removal costs, damages for various environmental cleanup and restoration, punitive and exemplary damages, litigation costs and attorney fees, among other relief.
John Fiske of Baron & Budd PC, one of the firms representing Maui County, said in a statement Thursday, "The public infrastructure and public resource damages we are seeking in this suit will be vital to the rebuilding process in the aftermath of what is the nation's worst and deadliest wildfires."
A representative for Hawaiian Electric did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.
In a message posted to the company's website on Aug. 17, Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura addressed the devastating fires, saying the company is working to restore power to the Maui community. Kimura said the company is working to replace an estimated 400 poles, 300 transformers and other equipment damaged by the fires and high winds.
The company also suspended bills for about 18,000 customers in the affected areas, according to the message.
"Facts about this event will continue to evolve," Kimura said. "And while we may not have answers for some time, we are committed, working with many others, to find out what happened as we continue to urgently focus on Maui's restoration and rebuilding efforts."
Maui is represented by Victoria J. Takayesu and Thomas Kolbe of Maui County's Department of the Corporation Counsel, L. Richard Fried Jr., Wayne K. Kekina and Patrick F. McTernan of Cronin Fried Sekiya Kekina & Fairbanks, John P. Fiske, Victoria Sherlin and Taylor O'Neal of Baron & Budd PC and Ed Diab and Robert J. Chambers II of Diab Chambers LLP.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is County of Maui v. Maui Electric Co. Ltd. et al., case number 2CCV-23-0000238, in the Second Circuit Court for the State of Hawaii.