Power lines likely caused Maui's first reported fire, video and data show – The Washington Post

KULA, Hawaii — At 10:47 p.m. last Monday, a security camera at the Maui Bird Conservation Center captured a bright flash in the woods, illuminating the trees swaying in the wind. “I think that is when a tree is falling on a power line,” says Jennifer Pribble, a senior research coordinator at the center, in a video posted on Instagram.
“The power goes out, our generator kicks in, the camera comes back online, and then the forest is on fire.”
At that exact moment, 10 sensors in Makawao, a small, rural town in the East Maui region of Upcountry — where the Conservation Center is located — recorded a significant incident in Hawaiian Electric’s grid, according to data from Whisker Labs, a company that uses an advanced sensor network to monitor grids across the United States. The bright light in the video was probably an “arc flash,” something that happens when a power line “faults” — meaning it has come in contact with vegetation or another line, or gets knocked down, releasing power, usually through sparks, according to a Whisker Labs official and other experts.
The fire in Makawao was the first of several reported on Maui last week, and this is the first time an electrical malfunction caught on video has been directly correlated with data confirming that Hawaiian Electric’s power system experienced a major problem at the same time.
It adds to evidence that the state’s main utility equipment sparked multiple fires last week, when powerful winds — predicted for days — whipped through drought-stricken grasslands. While the still-burning Makawao fire had nothing to do with the blaze that roared into Lahaina, it was one of several fires sparked on Aug. 7 and 8. At least one of those exploded into the blaze that roared into Lahaina, overwhelming residents, tourists and firefighters. As of Tuesday, 99 people had been confirmed dead in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century, and crews have only searched 25 percent of burned neighborhoods.
“This is strong confirmation — based on real data — that utility grid faults were likely the ignition source for multiple wildfires on Maui,” said Bob Marshall, the founder and CEO of Whisker Labs, which has 78 sensors across Maui, part of a robust network of hundreds of thousands monitoring grids across the United States.
Asked about the coinciding video and sensor data, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, the power provider for Maui and other islands, declined to comment.
“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts, restoring power for our customers and communities, and developing a long-term recovery plan,” spokesman Darren Pai said. “We know there is speculation about what started the fires, and we, along with others, are working hard to figure out what happened.”
As the Upcountry conservation workers tried to save endangered birds last Monday night, the fire quickly spread across Kula’s pastures, thick trees, dead branches and eucalyptus-flecked gulches. A few hours later, across the island in Lahaina, another fire would pop up next to an electrical substation, after a bright flash.
Residents have barely been able to process the immense loss of life, historical sites, homes and businesses, as well as damage to revered and familial lands. Many are still searching for loved ones, putting out spot fires around their neighborhoods and trying to help get necessities like food, medicine and propane to scores of people in need.
In interviews and online messages, eight residents said they had long raised concerns with Hawaiian Electric about the utility’s aging poles and power lines strung across Maui, which in places is thick with drought-stricken trees, brush and grasslands.
For days, the utility has faced scrutiny since The Post reported that, despite warnings, the company had not cut power in advance of the wind storm to avoid sparking wildfires. It had not adopted a power shut-off plan, as many utilities in California and other states have done.
Nina Rivers, who lives near the bird sanctuary, said she and neighbors provided emails to the utility and videos of low-hanging lines in trees. She said there had been fires from electrical equipment in the past, but responders always put them out quickly.
“I was already fighting with the electric company because they never maintain the lines,” said Rivers, a fifth-generation Hawaii resident who lives on her family’s 40-acre farm. “We were very concerned that these high-voltage lines were running through our property and going to our neighbors because they’d been on the ground, buried in trees, or lying so low.”
While it is not yet clear if an independent governmental authority will launch an investigation, Hawaiian Electric has begun investigating where people say the fires ignited. On Monday, inspectors from Los Angeles and Oahu walked around Kula, a town near the bird sanctuary that sustained significant damage, asking residents when and where they first saw flames and when their power went out.
The company, which told utility commissioners in an emergency filing last week that it expected damage to its grid to be “extensive,” has already completed an immense amount of work. It has restored power to about 80 percent of customers who have been without it since last Tuesday, it said on Twitter. Workers have also quickly repaired many of the poles and lines, including those near where residents say the fires started.
About 38 miles away from the bird sanctuary on Aug. 8, in Lahaina, a young woman named La’i woke up suddenly around 3 a.m. Something bright had flashed outside her second-story window, coming from the power poles and Hawaiian Electric substation right up the hill from her family’s home next to Lahainaluna Road. Then it was dark again. Before falling back asleep, she couldn’t believe how strong the wind sounded, said La’i, whose parents asked that her full name not be used.
Whisker Labs’ seven sensors in Lahaina recorded that flash, too, showing two significant faults at 2:44 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. They were two of 34 faults that occurred between 11:38 p.m. last Monday until 5 a.m. the following morning. When a power line’s voltage drops, that means that “a bunch of energy was dissipated somewhere that is not customary,” said Marshall. That discharge means sparks could be spewing into the wind and onto dry trees and grasses
“It is unambiguous that Hawaiian Electric’s grid experienced immense stress for a prolonged time,” Marshall said, comparing the fluctuating data to the grid’s stable readings from weeks and months prior. “There were dozens and dozens of major faults on the grid and any one of those could have been the ignition source for a fire.”
Across the street, Carly Agbayani woke up at 5 a.m. sweating next to her husband. She quickly realized that the air conditioning was off and her lights wouldn’t turn on.
Walking outside her home, which faces an empty lot, another home and the Hawaiian Electric power plant, the 46-year-old hotel worker was immediately buffeted by powerful, dusty winds. Around 6 a.m. her AC started to crank again, she recalled. Two other residents also remember their systems coming back online, a least for a little while.
According to sensor data, power in parts of Lahaina came back on briefly from 6:10 a.m. through 6:39 a.m. before going out again. And that’s a problem, wildfire and energy experts said, because it means lines that had been de-energized “were all of a sudden potential new source of fire in the community,” said Michael Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.
By this point, the electrical grid was clearly having serious issues, said Marshall. The question, though, is how much Hawaiian Electric knew about these issues and what, if anything, it did with that information.
Utilities often use technology known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) or Smart Meters, which track and report problems in real time. Since at least 2008, Hawaiian Electric had been installing these meters across all of its islands, with some pushback, with the goal of completing this roll out by 2024. According to an analysis by the Honolulu Civil Beat last November, the company had been lagging, with 51 percent of Maui County still on the old system. These meters would have detailed the power outages to Hawaiian Electric “with quite a bit of spatial detail,” Wara said.
The company did not respond to The Post’s questions about its metering data and what that data showed. Marshall said Whisker Labs reached out to Hawaiian Electric offering them his findings but also did not hear back.
Around 6:40 a.m., shortly after Agbayani’s family lost power for a second time, her 6-year-old son ran up to her. He smelled smoke. Sprinting outside, she looked up the hill and saw bright orange flames leaping and dancing in the wind, closing in on the home close to her. That was the exact same time that her neighbor and husband’s childhood friend, Shane Treu, went live on Facebook, documenting plumes of smoke and ribbons of fire erupting below the power lines and plant just walking distance from his front door.
“A power line just went down,” Treu said, spraying water from a garden hose in front of his home on Lahainaluna Road and lamenting that they had just got their power back on. “See it right there,” he says, swinging the camera to a downed wire in now-charred grass, “that’s the power line that started it. It started from up the road there. And all of that is still burning.”
A few minutes later, Treu went live again as first responders began to arrive. The roaring winds were bending the trees on the sidewalk in half. When a police officer pulled up, Treu warned him to watch out. “The line is live on the ground right there,” he yelled amid the roaring winds.
The fire had turned “wild,” Agbayani said. The winds were so powerful that they were pelting their skin with gravel. Police arrived, blaring megaphones to evacuate. She and her husband, Mike, grabbed what bags they could pack, stuffed their kids in their car and drove down the hill toward town.
After the evacuation order was lifted and officials said the fire was 100 percent contained, the couple returned to their home and stayed there, as would a few of their neighbors. The small crew would spend the next 12 hours hosing down their wood-clap roofs and walls until the water ran out, as well as some of the homes next to them. They stayed up all night chasing down flames that leaped from the reignited blaze onto lawns and shoveling dirt on them, Mike Agbayani and three others said in interviews.
Those in Kula also shared harrowing stories of trying to save themselves and their homes as flames raced over fields and down the gulch toward them. They used trash cans and coolers full of water when the spigots around them went dry.
For Rivers, whose family has owned the same land for 60 years, it was gutting to watch the flames destroy nearby pastures and homes. But for a long time, she said, she’d had a gnawing feeling that a disaster like this could happen. Her family has been battling with Hawaiian Electric for at least 10 years over the condition of the infrastructure, which “runs through a forest filled with highly flammable invasive grasses,” she said.
After venting her frustration, she pivoted. Her close-knit community has been working for days to organize relief work and cleanup, alongside firefighters still battling the Upcountry fire, which is about 65 percent contained.
“It’s hard to think about recovering from this, what we will look like,” Rivers said. “But we are used to fighting for and protecting what is ours, and we will.”
What’s happening: The official death toll from Maui’s wildfires has risen over 110, with the number expected to increase. Officials have also released a list of 388 people who are still unaccounted for after wildfires.
How did the fires start? Officials have not announced a cause, though Hawaiian Electric denies sparking the deadly Maui blaze. The spread of flammable nonnative grasses combined with hurricane-stoked winds could have been factors alongside the indirect influence of climate change.
What areas have been impacted? Fires burned across multiple Hawaiian islands — these maps show where. The town of Lahaina on the island of Maui suffered widespread damage, and historical landmarks across the island were damaged. These photos show the extent of the blaze.
Can I help? Thousands of residents and visitors were forced to evacuate. Many organizations are accepting donations to assist those affected by the wildfires.


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