A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)COPYRIGHT 2023 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The latest lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric for its role in the start of the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire also targets a prominent West Maui developer and landowner for alleged actions contributing to the dry and dangerous conditions that allowed the wind-driven blaze to blow up.
The suit, one of at least 30 lodged against Hawaiian Electric over the disaster, was filed Wednesday in Maui Circuit Court by Ke‘eaumoku Kapu and U‘ilani Kapu, a Lahaina couple who ran the Na ‘Aikane o Maui Cultural Center on Front Street before it burned down.
While the state, Maui County and landowner Kamehameha Schools are also named in the com plaint, this lawsuit is only the second filed against Peter Martin and his West Maui Land Co., and the first to name its water subsidiaries of Launiupoko Irrigation Co., Launiupoko Water Co. and Launiupoko Water Development LLC.
The lawsuit contends that Martin and his companies made worse the dry conditions that led to the Lahaina fires by diverting streams and over-pumping Lahaina groundwater for their West Maui real estate developments.
The genesis of the problem actually dates back to the 1800s when sugar and pineapple plantations developed water diversion systems to irrigate their crops. The diversions served the plantations well, but they altered natural ecosystems and in some cases forced Native Hawaiian families off their farmlands.
The Kapu’s attorney, Lance Collins, said that when the plantations closed at the end of the 20th century, Martin and his subsidiary companies bought the land claims and its control of the water diversion systems.
But instead of continuing to irrigate large swaths of agricultural land like the plantations did, Martin developed housing subdivisions and his companies diverted much of the water to those developments, leaving vast empty tracts of land that were largely neglected, Collins said.
According to the lawsuit, the West Maui Land Co. and its subsidiaries exacerbated drought conditions in West Maui by diverting water from streams and pumping of ground water. This increased the fire hazard and “led to the devastating loss of life and property on August 8, 2023,” the suit said.
The wind-driven blaze overwhelmed the heart of Lahaina town in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. At least 98 people have died as a result of the tragedy and more than 2,200 structures, most of them homes, were destroyed.
A Sept. 19 class-action lawsuit filed by Chardell Naki was the first court complaint to accuse Martin and West Maui Land of neglecting former sugar cane lands and allowing highly flammable grasses to move in, providing fuel for the inferno that ravaged Lahaina town.
The latest lawsuit, among other things, accuses the state and county of allowing West Maui Land Co. to place locked gates on public roads and thoroughfares in and around Lahaina.