Cause of Maui's Deadly Fires: Uninsulated Power Lines and Aging Poles

Amidst the initial moments of the devastating Maui inferno, triggered by gales toppling electricity poles and causing live wires to meet parched grass, a pivotal factor emerged: these wires were stripped, bereft of insulation, thereby prone to ignition upon contact.

Amidst the initial moments of the devastating Maui inferno, triggered by gales toppling electricity poles and causing live wires to meet parched grass, a pivotal factor emerged: these wires were stripped, bereft of insulation, thereby prone to ignition upon contact.

Upon scrutinizing videos and images, meticulously examined by The Associated Press, it became evident that these exposed wires were part of a sprawling network maintained by Hawaiian Electric Co., left uncovered to the mercy of the elements, including dense foliage. This was in stark contrast to the recent trend in other regions prone to wildfires and hurricanes, where utilities had embarked on initiatives to shield or subterraneously bury their power lines.

Exacerbating this situation was the subpar condition of many of the utility's 60,000 power poles, predominantly constructed to an outdated 1960s standard, according to their own records. These poles, primarily composed of wood, were not equipped to withstand the formidable 105-mile-per-hour winds stipulated by a national standard established in 2002 for key components of Hawaii's electrical infrastructure. A 2019 report from the company indicated that replacing these antiquated wooden poles had lagged behind due to competing priorities, thus cautioning against a "severe public hazard" if they were to fail.

Images from Google Street View, captured prior to the inferno, unequivocally expose the exposed wiring.

Experts, including Michael Ahern, who recently retired as the director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, concurred that the probability of an insulated cable causing a fire in arid vegetation was "very unlikely." Videos depicting fallen power lines suggested that insulated wires would not have produced the arcing and subsequent ignition witnessed in the devastating blaze.

Hawaiian Electric released a statement acknowledging their awareness of the unique threats posed by climate change and their commitment to addressing them, although they did not specify whether the downed power lines were, in fact, devoid of insulation. The statement emphasized their ongoing investments in grid fortification and vegetation management, amounting to approximately $950 million since 2018, involving the replacement of over 12,500 poles and structures during this period. Tree trimming and removal along approximately 2,500 miles of power lines annually were also integral aspects of these efforts.

However, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, Jennifer Potter, residing in Lahaina, confirmed that many of Maui's wooden power poles were in a state of disrepair. She noted that these poles had leaned significantly over time due to the relentless winds, rendering them ill-prepared for wind speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour. This structural vulnerability raised concerns about the overall integrity of the electrical infrastructure in the face of such a formidable windstorm.

John Morgan, a personal injury and trial attorney from Florida who spends part of his time in Maui, echoed these observations. He pointed out the visibly frail power poles and the frequent power outages experienced by the community.

As of August 14th, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura revealed that a staggering 60 percent of the utility poles in West Maui remained toppled, equating to 450 out of 750 poles.

Hawaiian Electric now grapples with a barrage of lawsuits seeking accountability for the deadliest wildfire in the United States in over a century. The death toll currently stands at 115, with expectations of further increases as the county continues to assess the damage.

Attorneys are preparing to examine electrical equipment from the area believed to be the origin of the fire, as mandated by a court order. However, this examination will occur within a warehouse since the utility has already dismantled the burnt poles and cleared fallen wires from the scene.

Lead counsel on three of these lawsuits, attorney Paul Starita, referred to this catastrophe as a "preventable tragedy of epic proportions." He underscored the imperative of prioritizing safety over financial considerations, emphasizing that lives are at stake.

Hawaiian Electric faces additional criticism for not deactivating power during high wind warnings and maintaining power supply even as numerous poles succumbed to the elements. Maui County initiated legal action against Hawaiian Electric on this matter.

Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented on the prevalent issue of power lines triggering fires across the United States. He noted a conspicuous absence of an updated safety protocol to counter this new pattern.

The insulation of electrical wires serves as a preventive measure against arcing, sparking, and heat dissipation.

Several other utilities have taken proactive measures to address the issue of uninsulated wiring. Pacific Gas & Electric, held accountable for the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, which claimed 85 lives, initiated a program to replace uninsulated wires in fire-prone areas, covering over 1,200 miles of lines thus far. PG&E also announced plans in 2021 to bury 10,000 miles of electrical lines, with 180 miles buried in 2022 and a target of 350 miles for the current year.

Southern California Edison, another major California utility, anticipates replacing over 7,200 miles, or roughly 75 percent of its overhead distribution lines, with insulated wires in high fire risk regions by the end of 2025. They are also burying lines in areas at severe risk.

Hawaiian Electric acknowledged in a filing last year that they had consulted the wildfire mitigation strategies employed by California utilities. Some argue that Hawaiian Electric's relative inaction is justifiable, as Hawaii has not faced the same level of wildfire threats for as long as other regions. Moreover, the use of bare metal conductors high up on power poles is a practice that extends beyond Hawaiian Electric.

Similarly, public safety power shutoffs have only gained prominence in recent years as a preemptive measure to mitigate fire risks, and their implementation remains irregular.

Mark Toney, executive director of the ratepayer group The Utility Reform Network in California, deems wildfires resulting from utility negligence entirely avoidable. His organization is actively pressing PG&E to insulate its lines in high-risk areas.

Regarding the aging wooden poles, a 2019 regulatory document from Hawaiian Electric highlighted their vulnerability due to their age and the prevalence of severe wood decay in Hawaii. The document pointed out that many of these poles were constructed to withstand wind speeds of only 56 miles per hour, falling significantly short of the 2002 national standard mandating 105-mile-per-hour wind resistance.

Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, emphasized the need for utilities to adapt to the changing climate, characterized by prolonged droughts and high winds. He stressed that proactively preventing wildfires and their catastrophic consequences is more cost-effective than responding to them.

Tony Takitani, an attorney with deep roots in Maui, reflected on the increasing aridity on the island over his 68 years there. He acknowledged the profound horror of the recent events but expressed hope that they would compel substantial improvements in the electrical grid.

He noted, "When the poles go down, it's kindling," emphasizing the critical need for comprehensive preparedness in the face of evolving environmental challenges.

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