The historic wildfires that affected the Hawaiian island of Maui this past August have placed Hawaiian Electric Company, or HECO, under an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Evidence has been emerging that HECO did not appropriately respond to a National Weather Service Red Flag warning, which may have increased their chances of starting a wildfire. Moreover, recent court documents detail that HECO preemptively removed electric poles, transformers, conductors, and other equipment from a substation in Lahaina prior to federal investigators from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arriving.
By removing those items, the utility company may have violated national guidelines on how utility companies must preserve evidence after a wildfire. By removing equipment, including poles, it took away a vital opportunity for investigators to see the lines that were downed in order to determine how the fire started in the first place. Despite their acknowledgment that some evidence was compromised, a spokesman for HECO asserted that they have been cooperating with officials to provide inventories and access to removed equipment.
The cause still remains under investigation, though evidence is mounting that HECO’s wind-damaged equipment sent sparks into the dry, overgrown vegetation surrounding its poles. This week, Maui County officials have also added to the legal pressure on HECO by filing a lawsuit claiming negligence. As a result of the devastating wildfires, at least 115 people have died and hundreds of others are now missing.
Court documents obtained by CNN showed that the electric company did admit that some “vital evidence was compromised” in an exchange with lawyers.
From KIRO 7:
The company reportedly said that “fallen power poles, power lines and other equipment were moved during firefighting efforts and as officials worked to make the area safe for residents,” according to letters that are part of a class action lawsuit from residents of Lahaina, obtained by CNN.
The company told attorny’s representing the Lahaina resident that it’s possible “even likely” that the evidence related “to the cause of the fire,” may be gone.