Written by Joanna Button
What’s happening? Massive wildfires in Maui have killed over 100 people and destroyed much of the Hawaiian island. While the cause is still under investigation, many are blaming the state’s electric utility, Hawaiian Electric, for not deploying sufficient safety measures before the blaze.
The spark: Strong winds before the fires downed numerous electrical poles and power lines, sparking small fires. Hours before the major fire started, around 30 poles and several power lines were damaged; over 12,000 people were without power.
The big decision: Hawaiian Electric did not shut off the island’s power, a safety strategy to prevent wildfires in case of large winds, despite meteorologists’ warnings. This possibly caused the island's vulnerable infrastructure—old uninsulated wooden poles and above-ground power lines covered in vegetation—to spark and spread multiple fires.
- On the other side: Power shutoffs can be inconvenient. And short-notice shutoffs can prevent emergency responders from drawing water to fight fires or harm people reliant on electrical medical equipment. Still, critics argue Hawaiian Electric should have coordinated a shutdown plan ahead of time to ensure backup generators were available where necessary.
What’s next? Multiple law firms filed the lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric on Saturday, arguing its negligence caused the fires. There’s a precedent. Utility company Pacific Gas & Electric pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after investigations determined its downed power lines caused California’s 2018 Camp Fire.