September 30, 2023

Lessons of Lahaina

By Stephen Tuttle | Aug. 26, 2023

It’s not as if they didn’t see it coming.

As early as 2016, Hawaiian Electric’s own internal documents highlight a growing risk of
failure of above ground transmission lines in storm and high wind conditions. They added that such failures could result in fires to surrounding areas. By 2019, they were citing responses to exactly such incidents that started California wildfires.

The aging system of above ground poles and lines was clearly vulnerable to frequent high winds in Maui. A report from McCullough Research prior to the fire said, “This is not a highly reinforced system.” Finally, last year, the utility, which supplies 95 percent of all electricity to Hawai’i, received permission from regulators to spend $190 million hardening their above ground system. No work has yet been undertaken.

This while the U.S. Drought Monitor says 80 percent of the Hawaiian Islands are in drought conditions and lists Maui’s drought specifically as abnormally dry to severe, with a rain deficit of more than two inches this year. That is atop increasingly frequent wind events with increasing ferocity.

So, that leads to fully charged transmission lines strung between weakened poles above unmitigated dry brush in high velocity wind events. There are at least two videos of downed power lines sparking madly and igniting dry brush just outside of Lahaina, which was ultimately destroyed by what became the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history with at least 111 deaths and still many unaccounted for residents.

(The deadliest fire in U.S. history was the 1871 conflagration that started in or just outside Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and killed at least 1,200, including 800 in Peshtigo alone. Most experts believe the death toll was much higher, but any records or employee lists that existed were obliterated in a fire that destroyed 18 towns and more than a million acres.)

The Maui fire, though shocking in its intensity, speed, and death toll, was foretold years ago with little having been done in the interim to lessen the risks. The steps apparently not taken before the fire were compounded by those not taken once it started.

Despite a wind storm with sustained gusts approaching 60 mph and mounting evidence that their downed power lines were starting fires, Hawaiian Electric’s CEO said they did not shut off power in Lahaina in order to keep medical devices and water pumps running. The counter argument is a shut-off would have forced people out of a community that was literally reduced to ashes and prevented additional fire outbreaks from downed live power lines. Hawaiian Electric will no doubt have an extended opportunity to explain their side in detail in court, as lawsuits have already been filed.

Hawaiian Electric is not the only entity with questions needing better answers. Maui, including the Lahaina area, have an elaborate system of emergency sirens, mainly to warn against tsunamis. Deadly such events in 1946 and 1960 spurred the islands to create what they claim is the world’s largest system of outdoor emergency sirens.

Those sirens never sounded as the fire approached Lahaina. The administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency at first said that since the sirens had never been used to warn against wildfires, there was a fear some people would be confused and run toward higher ground. When that didn’t sell—nobody was likely to run uphill toward the rapidly approaching giant columns of smoke—he said they tried warning people through social media, emails, and texts because people might be inside with air conditioning on and wouldn’t be able to hear the ear-splitting sirens. Which, of course, would mean they wouldn’t be effective in the event of a tsunami, either.

The administrator has since resigned, and the search for victims’ remains is ongoing.

Certainly climate change has increased the incidence and severity of both drought and high intensity wind events—Maui’s drought conditions worsened significantly in just the two months prior to the fire. But there have been drought, wind, and fire previously, so climate change is not the only culprit. It would probably be more accurate to suggest climate change created conditions favorable for disaster, but it was human indecision and poor decisions that dramatically exacerbated those conditions.

(If you’re looking for a more dramatic sign of climate change to come, look no further than a tropical storm whacking southern California for the first time in 84 years.)

We are going to be confronted with climate change related challenges to be met for the foreseeable future. We already know what flash point conditions exist—excessive heat, diminishing water supplies, more frequent and severe droughts, rising sea levels, increased storm intensity and frequency, poor wildlands management, and wildfires needing the smallest of sparks to become the deadliest infernos.

We can identify the potential problems and address them now, or we can ignore them and make excuses after the fact. Like we’re doing in Lahaina.


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