The death toll from wildfires that tore through Maui early this month stood at 115 on Monday with nearly 400 people unaccounted for. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio/FEMA/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Hawaii's electric utility is pushing back against a Maui County lawsuit blaming it for the devastating wildfire that destroyed thousands of properties and killed more than 100 people by arguing local firefighters had declared the blaze extinguished and left the scene.
With a death toll of 115 and hundreds more unaccounted for, the wildfire that ignited Aug. 8 and tore through the historic Maui town of Lahaina is considered the deadliest blaze in modern U.S. history.
Maui County filed its lawsuit Thursday, seeking damages from the Hawaiian Electric Company on allegations its "energized and downed power lines ignited dry fuel ... causing the fires."
On Sunday, Hawaiian Electric acknowledged for the first time that a fire that ignited the morning of Aug. 8 "appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds," but said the Maui County Fire Department had responded to this fire, reported it 100% contained, left the scene and declared it had been extinguished.
Hawaiian Electric crews then arrived at the scene to make repairs with the power still off and saw a small fire and called 911, the utility said, adding that by the time Maui County fire personnel were on the scene the blaze had spread out of control toward Lahaina.
The utility said in its statement that the cause of the second fire "has not been determined."
"The county's lawsuit distracts from the important work that needs to be done for the people of Lahaina and Maui," Scott Seu, president and chief executive officer of Hawaiian Electric, said Sunday in a statement.
Rick Fried, an attorney representing Maui County in the case, told UPI in an emailed statement on Tuesday that Hawaiian Electric appears to be suggesting a possible second ignition source for the blaze while blaming "the very firefighters who risked their lives trying to stop the fire that the utility caused."
"Maui's firefighters responded quickly to Hawaiian Electric's fire the morning of Aug. 8 and fought and tended to the fire for approximately eight hours, achieving 100% containment pouring over 20,000 gallons of water on the area of origin," he said. "To the extent the Hawaiian Electric fire flared up in the afternoon due to high winds, that is not the fault of the dedicated firefighters or Maui County."
The announcement comes as searchers continue to look through the rubble of Lahaina for nearly 400 people who are unaccounted for and as officials work to identify the remains of 115 people.
On Monday, Maui County confirmed two more victims have been identified and next of kin notified for a total of 45. Another six victims have been identified but their families have yet to be located and notified.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez on Monday also urged property owners in Lahaina to make formal reports of any unsolicited offers.
A proclamation issued by Gov. Josh Green made it a crime punishable by one year imprisonment and a $5,000 fine to make unsolicited offers for property located in specific areas of Maui impacted by the fire.
"Preying on people who suffered the most from the tragedy on Maui is despicable," Lopez said in a statement. "The Department of the Attorney General will investigate all such criminal activity and hold perpetrators accountable."
The fire burned more than 3,000 acres in Maui and destroyed more than 2,200 structures. Maui County estimates that the fire resulted in $5.5 billion in damages.