Hawaiian utility company Hawaiian Electric Industries’ shares prices have plunged almost 40% since the beginning of the deadly wildfires currently sweeping through Maui as questions over the cause of the crisis continue to mount.
Shares in the company hit $18.70 on Monday, the lowest level in more than a decade as focus falls on the potential role of powerlines, owned by Hawaiian Electric Industries, in starting the blaze. According to the Washington Post, the company has been criticised for failing to shut off power supplies despite state warnings of critical fire conditions due to exceptionally dry ground and anticipated gale-force winds.
According to reports, lawyers with firms Watts Guerra, Singleton Schreiber and Frantz Law Group said they travelled to the island to collect evidence, interview eyewitnesses and review reports that indicate the damaged power infrastructure owned by Hawaiian Electric produced the sparks that led to the fires.
On 8 August, wildfires broke out across Maui. Hawaiian Electric warned customers then that power lines had fallen on the west of the island. Questions have been raised over whether the company did enough to mitigate potential wildfire hazards. Fallen powerlines, which can release sparks on impact with the ground, have historically been the cause of serious wildfires in mainland US, particularly in the state of California.
On Friday, residents of the state filed two separate class action lawsuits against the company, claiming it is responsible for starting the fires which, at the time of writing, have killed at least 99 people, with hundreds still missing. Fires tore through the island’s historic town of Lahaina last week, blown through with force by a hurricane, razing it almost entirely to the ground.
“By failing to shut off the power during these dangerous fire conditions, defendants caused loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawaii‘s historic and cultural sites,” the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit, which raises gross negligence and private nuisance claims, among others.
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The official cause of the fires is still under investigation. Hawaiian Electric did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although vice-president Jim Kelly told CNN on Sunday that the company does not comment on pending litigation. Before the lawsuits were filed on Friday, the company said it is working with county officials to determine what happened.
“There’s an uncertainty that the cause of the fires in Maui may be attributable to Hawaiian Electric,” Thomas Hayes, chairman of private equity firm Great Hill Capital, said via Reuters. “That’s not yet proven, so there’s the fear in the market. It’s a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ type of situation.”