Outdated bare electrical wires and leaning poles in Maui facilitated rapid spread of wildfires

During the initial moments of the Maui fires, as powerful winds toppled power poles, causing live wires to come into contact with the parched ground below, the sudden eruption of flames in precise, elongated patterns had a clear explanation — those wires lacked insulation, consisting of exposed metal that readily ignited upon impact.

Examination of videos and images by The Associated Press confirmed that these wires formed part of an extensive network maintained by Hawaiian Electric Co. These wires had been left uncovered, exposed to the elements and often concealed within dense foliage. This was in contrast to the recent trend observed in regions prone to wildfires and hurricanes, where utilities had taken measures to shield or bury their lines.

Why the Maui wildfires spread so devastatingly fast

Making matters worse was the condition of the utility’s substantial inventory of approximately 60,000 power poles, predominantly constructed from wood. These poles, as described in the utility’s own records, were designed according to outdated standards from the 1960s and were showing signs of leaning, nearing the conclusion of their anticipated operational lifespan.

Regrettably, these structures fell significantly short of meeting the 2002 national criterion that demanded crucial components of Hawaii’s electrical infrastructure be resilient enough to withstand wind speeds of up to 105 miles per hour.

As indicated in a filing from 2019, the utility acknowledged lagging behind in the replacement of these aging wooden poles due to competing priorities. The filing also raised a red flag by warning of a grave “public hazard” should these poles reach a point of failure.

Images captured by Google Street View prior to the fire depict the power poles with exposed wires.

The probability of a fire being triggered in dry vegetation due to a fully-insulated cable sparking is “highly improbable,” according to Michael Ahern, who recently retired from his position as the director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Upon reviewing videos depicting the fallen power lines, experts concurred that insulated wire would not have generated the electrical discharge necessary to initiate a spark and subsequently ignite a line of fire.

Hawaiian Electric addressed the issue by stating that it had long acknowledged the distinctive risks posed by climate change and had invested significant funds in response. However, the statement did not clarify whether the specific power lines that collapsed in the initial stages of the fire were indeed devoid of insulation.

“We’ve been executing on a resilience strategy to meet these challenges, and since 2018, we have spent approximately $950 million to strengthen and harden our grid and approximately $110 million on vegetation management efforts,” the company said. “This work included replacing more than 12,500 poles and structures since 2018 and trimming and removing trees along approximately 2,500 line miles every year on average.”

Jennifer Potter, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and a Lahaina resident, has affirmed that a considerable number of wooden power poles on Maui were indeed in a state of disrepair. Potter’s tenure on the commission, which oversees Hawaiian Electric, lasted until the conclusion of the previous year.

She explained, “Even tourists that drive around the island are like, ‘What is that?’ They’re leaning quite significantly because the winds over time literally just pushed them over.” Potter continued, “That obviously is not going to withstand 60, 70 mile per hour winds. So the infrastructure was just not strong enough for this kind of windstorm … The infrastructure itself is just compromised.”

John Morgan, a personal injury and trial attorney residing part-time in Maui and also based in Florida, noted a similar observation. “I could look at the power poles. They were skinny, bending, bowing. The power went out all the time.”

This convergence of assessments underscores the consensus regarding the inadequate state of the infrastructure, particularly the weakened condition of the power poles on Maui.

Morgan’s law firm is engaged in a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric on behalf of an individual, with discussions underway to represent numerous others in asserting their rights. The devastating fire approached within 500 yards of their residence.

As of August 14, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura revealed during a media briefing that sixty percent of the utility poles on West Maui remained in a fallen state—450 out of the total 750 poles.

Hawaiian Electric is currently facing a surge of fresh legal actions that aim to hold it accountable for the most fatal wildfire witnessed in the United States in over a century. The confirmed death toll stands at 115, and local authorities anticipate this number to increase.

Following a court order, legal representatives intend to assess certain electrical equipment believed to be linked to the fire’s origin in an upcoming week. However, this inspection will be conducted within a warehouse setting.

The utility has dismantled the charred poles and cleared away fallen wires from the affected site.

Describing the situation, lead attorney Paul Starita, representing three of the lawsuits, characterized it as a “preventable tragedy of epic proportions.” He voiced his perspective, stating, “It all comes back to money. They might say, oh, well, it takes a long time to get the permitting process done or whatever. OK, start sooner. I mean, people’s lives are on the line. You’re responsible. Spend the money, do your job.”

Hawaiian Electric is also facing criticism for not implementing power shutdowns during high wind advisories and for maintaining power supply even as numerous poles started collapsing. Maui County filed a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric on Thursday in relation to this matter.

According to Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the frequency of fires in the United States caused by power lines underscores a new trend. However, he emphasizes that a corresponding safety framework to address this trend has yet to be established.

The process of insulating electrical wires serves to prevent arcing, minimize sparking, and disperse heat.

Various other utility companies have been actively tackling the issue of exposed wires. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was deemed responsible for the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which tragically claimed 85 lives. The incident was attributed to downed power lines.

PG&E has initiated a program to eliminate uninsulated wires in areas prone to fires. This initiative has already covered over 1,200 miles of lines. Furthermore, in 2021, PG&E announced its plans to bury 10,000 miles of electrical lines. By the end of 2022, they successfully buried 180 miles and are on track to bury an additional 350 miles this year.

Southern California Edison, another significant utility provider in California, anticipates that it will have replaced more than 7,200 miles, constituting approximately 75% of its overhead distribution lines, with insulated wire in regions of high fire risk by the conclusion of 2025.

Southern California Edison is also burying power lines in high-risk areas to enhance safety and minimize fire hazards.

Hawaiian Electric, having examined the wildfire strategies employed by Californian utilities, stated in a filing last year that it had drawn inspiration from them.

Some individuals do not criticize Hawaiian Electric for its relatively limited response, considering that it has not encountered the wildfire threat for as long as certain other regions. Moreover, the practice of employing exposed metal conductors high on power poles is not exclusive to this utility; it remains a common approach.

This similarity extends to the concept of public safety power shutoffs as well. The proactive measure of preemptively cutting off power to avert fire risk is a relatively recent development, and its widespread implementation is still evolving.

Mark Toney, Executive Director of the ratepayer organization The Utility Reform Network in California, asserts that wildfires originating from utility-related factors are entirely avoidable. His organization is actively advocating for PG&E to insulate its lines in areas at elevated risk.

“We have to stop utility-caused wildfires. We have to stop them and the quickest, cheapest way to do it is to insulate the overhead lines,” he said.

Regarding the utility poles, a regulatory document from Hawaiian Electric in 2019 indicated that the company expressed concern about its 60,000 mostly wooden poles. These poles were deemed vulnerable due to their advanced age and the fact that Hawaii falls within a “severe wood decay hazard zone.” The company acknowledged a backlog in replacing these wooden poles due to competing priorities and cautioned against a potential “serious public hazard” should these poles give way.

The document highlighted that many of the company’s poles were designed to withstand winds of up to 56 mph (90 kph), which is below the wind speed of at least 74 mph associated with a Category 1 Hurricane.

In 2002, updates to the National Electric Safety Code mandated that utility poles, such as those found on Maui, should be able to endure wind speeds of 105 miles per hour.

Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out that the U.S. electrical grid was constructed to accommodate the climate of the previous century.

He also emphasized that utilities would be wise to enhance their readiness for extended periods of drought and strong winds.

“Everyone considers Hawaii to be a tropical paradise, but it got dry and it burned,” he said Thursday. “It may look expensive if you’re doing work to stave off starting wildfires or the impact of wildfires, but it’s much cheaper than actually starting one and burning down so many people’s homes and causing so many people’s deaths.”

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