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27 Aug, 2023 00:01

Possible cause of Maui wildfires identified – AP

The news agency claims that bare electricity wires and leaning power poles may have caused the deadly blazes
Possible cause of Maui wildfires identified – AP

The catastrophic wildfires that left hundreds of people either dead or missing earlier this month in Hawaii may have been caused by a dangerous combination of high winds and “obsolete” electricity infrastructure, the Associated Press reports.

Flames erupted on the island of Maui in “long, neat rows” when uninsulated electricity wires slapped the dry grass below as they were brought down by heavy wind gusts, the media outlet said on Saturday, citing its own analysis of videos and images from the fires. The wooden power poles holding up the lines were prone to fall because many were outdated and leaning, AP added.

Even as utilities in other wildfire- and hurricane-prone regions push to cover up or bury their power lines, Hawaiian Electric Co. has retained miles of bare wires that are exposed to Maui’s trade-wind weather and thick foliage, AP said. Many of the local utility’s 60,000 power poles were built to “an obsolete 1960 standard” and were leaning and old, according to the utility’s own description of its grid.

Hawaii Electric disclosed in a 2019 filing that it was behind schedule in replacing its outdated wooden poles because of other priorities, and it warned of a “serious public hazard” if they fell. AP added that the utility was far from meeting a 2002 national standard calling for power lines to be able to withstand 105mph winds.

The August 8 blazes left at least 115 people dead and 388 missing as of the most recent counts – the deadliest US wildfires in more than a century. Hawaii Electric already faces lawsuits for its possible role in the fires, including its alleged failure to shut down power transmission as the winds whipped up and poles began to fall.

“Our immediate focus is on restoring power for our customers, supporting Maui residents and developing a long-term recovery plan,” the utility said in a statement last week. “Given the amount of work we have underway, we are not in a position to comment on each one of these issues at this time.”

AP did not detail the “other priorities” that Hawaii Electric has focused on in recent years, but the state’s utilities have ramped up spending on renewable energy sources. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 mandating that Hawaii’s utilities derive 100% of their electricity from renewables by 2045, the first such order in the nation.

Hawaii Electric had plans to spend around $190 million on measures to protect against wildfires, but it reportedly said that work on these projects wouldn’t start until the state approved rate increases to recoup its costs. Earlier this year, the utility touted its progress in more than tripling its renewable power capacity since 2010.