Hawaii Governor Josh Green said he would consider a temporary ban on sales of any properties damaged in the fire that leveled Lahaina last week, to ensure residents aren’t permanently displaced.
As the tragedy’s death toll rose to 99 Monday, Green said he had reached out to the state’s attorney general to discuss a moratorium on property sales in the historic seaside town. Maui had been facing a serious housing crunch and unaffordable prices before being hit by the deadliest fire in the US in over a century. Green said he didn’t want to see the remains of Lahaina snapped up by developers.
“You will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here,” he told reporters during an update on the fires. “For my part, I will try to allow no one from outside the state to buy any land until we get through this crisis and decide what Lahaina should be in the future.”
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His comments came as searchers accompanied by 20 cadaver dogs continued combing the town for remains, with 25% of the burned area checked so far. Utility Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. reported that 80% of West Maui residents who lost power last week would have it restored by day’s end, not counting homes and businesses destroyed by the flames.
The utility’s stock plummeted Monday on fears that its equipment may have sparked the fires, with several lawsuits already filed. Chief Executive Officer Shelee Kimura, speaking at the same press conference with Green, said her company would conduct its own investigation, as would the state. Government officials have so far not named any specific cause for the fires, which struck several locations across Maui last week during high winds.
“We all believe it’s important to know what happened, and we all believe it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
The company has found 400 utility poles damaged or destroyed across West Maui, along with 300 transformers, Kimura said. The utility’s Lahaina substation was destroyed, she said.
Read More: What to Know About the Maui Wildfires
Maui’s fire department first received word of a 3-acre fire on Lahaina’s far eastern edge at 6:37 a.m. Aug. 8. The location, near Lahaina Intermediate School, is less than a mile and a half upwind from the city’s historic core along the waterfront. An evacuation order was issued for the immediate neighborhood, according to a post on the department’s Facebook page, which said winds were “a high concern.”
Shortly before 9 a.m., the department declared the fire contained, meaning firefighters had encircled it. One of the local streets, however, remained closed as workers from Hawaiian Electric dealt with a downed power line. And Maui County noted in a press release that power outages in the area were limiting firefighters’ ability to pump water, asking the public to conserve. Even a Red Cross shelter that had been set up for evacuees had lost its power.
That afternoon, the county reported on its Facebook page that “an apparent flareup“ of the same fire had at 3:30 p.m. closed the Lahaina Bypass, a highway that runs just west of where the initial fire was reported. At first, the county advised many residents to shelter in place, but over the coming hours, evacuation orders would spread neighborhood by neighborhood.
While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, a lawsuit filed Aug. 12 against Hawaiian Electric on behalf of victims said the original 3-acre fire lay near one of the company’s electrical substations. The suit alleges that the utility’s “negligence,” including not shutting off power in the area in advance of high winds, led to the fire.
Company representatives did not respond to an emailed question about the substation Monday. Earlier, the utility declined to comment on its potential for legal liability, saying it’s focused on restoration efforts, damage assessment and local community support.
Kimura told reporters that shutting down power lines to prevent fires remains a “controversial” way to prevent fires, saying “it can be seen as creating a hardship.”
—With assistance from Mark Chediak.
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