The fires that ravaged Maui were found to have been ignited by neglected power poles collapsing due to high winds. The flames spread rapidly as electrified wires fell onto dry grass, intensified by the sparking of uninsulated metal wires upon contact.

An investigation has shed light on the hazardous state of the power infrastructure and the failure of Hawaiian Electric Co to adopt modern safety practices.

Hawaiian Electric Co left miles of power lines exposed to the unforgiving Hawaiian weather and dense foliage. Other utility companies operating in wildfire- and hurricane-prone regions have taken proactive measures to safeguard their infrastructure, including covering or burying power lines.

The utility company has continuously relied on outdated power poles. Most of the 60,000 poles were constructed based on standards dating back to the 1960s. Many of these poles were reportedly leaning and close to the end of their expected lifespan, making them vulnerable to collapsing during high winds.

The power poles in question did not meet the 2002 national standard for withstanding winds of up to 105 miles per hour. This inadequacy was underscored in a 2019 filing by the utility itself but acknowledged its failure to replace aging wooden poles due to other priorities.

As of 14 August, 60% of the utility poles in West Maui remained toppled, amounting to 450 out of 750 poles.

Google Street View images captured prior to the fire revealed the presence of bare wires on these neglected power poles. Videos showed that the downed power lines lacking insulation. Fully insulated cables are considered less likely to cause sparks and fires in dry vegetation.  

Hawaiian Electric Co claimed to have allocated resources towards grid strengthening and hardening since 2018, committing around US$950 million. An additional US$110 million was reportedly invested in vegetation management, including the replacement of over 12,500 power poles and structures within the same timeframe. Approximately 2,500 line miles of trees were trimmed and removed on average each year in an attempt to mitigate the risk of falling debris.

Despite these efforts, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, Jennifer Potter, affirmed that many of Maui’s wooden power poles were in a state of disrepair. Potter, who resided in Lahaina and was a part of the commission until the previous year, played a role in regulating Hawaiian Electric. She highlighted the leaning of power poles, observable even by tourists visiting the island. The significant tilt of these poles, attributed to years of exposure to forceful winds, indicated their vulnerability and inability to withstand winds.

John Morgan, a personal injury and trial attorney who spends time in both Maui and Florida, described the unsettling sight of slender, bending, and bowing poles. Morgan’s law firm currently represents an individual in a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric Co and is in discussions with multiple others about their legal rights.

Hawaiian Electric faces multiple lawsuits seeking accountability for the deadliest wildfire in the United States in over a century.

Criticism has been directed towards Hawaiian Electric for its failure to shut off power during high wind warnings and for maintaining power despite poles collapsing. Maui County itself has taken legal action against the company for this reason.

With the current death toll from the wildfire standing at 115, there are concerns that this number could rise even further as investigations unfold.