Maui Wildfires Leave Hundreds Unaccounted: Questions Arise Around Evidence Preservation

In the wake of the recent and devastating wildfires that engulfed Maui, the count of individuals yet to be located remains in the hundreds. The FBI is actively reviewing names, and the tally of confirmed individuals, presently at 388, is anticipated to change. Through the use of cell phone data, authorities are piecing together the movements of victims during this tragic event, marking the deadliest wildfire in the US in over a century.

While the death toll stands at 115, this number is expected to shift as investigations unfold.In a conversation documented in court records, the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) acknowledged a potential complication in the ongoing probe into the deadly fire in Lahaina. The company raised concerns that crucial evidence that could shed light on the fire’s cause may have been compromised.As detailed in correspondence within a class action lawsuit, HECO revealed that during firefighting operations and safety measures for residents, fallen power poles, lines, and other equipment were moved.

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The company communicated with attorneys representing Lahaina residents in the lawsuit, stating that due to these actions, there’s a significant chance that evidence related to the fire’s origin might have been compromised. They suggested that it was “possible, even likely” for such evidence to have been lost.Equipment in the vicinity of the Lahaina substation, believed to be the point of origin for the fire, was relocated prior to federal investigators arriving at the scene.

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These actions potentially run counter to national guidelines, which emphasize the utmost importance of carefully preserving fire scenes for investigators. As per court documents submitted by attorneys, evidence is expected to remain on-site and protected, with any removal requiring thorough documentation.On August 17, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) announced that its National Response Team had been dispatched to Hawaii.

Their mission is to assist in determining the cause and source of the deadly fire. This decision came shortly after the utility company admitted that equipment and potential evidence may have been shifted or lost.In response to the wildfire’s destructive impact on Lahaina on August 8, a group of attorneys took action, informing the utility company of an impending legal move. They specifically requested the preservation of all electrical equipment that could be connected to the fire’s origin, including power poles, lines, and conductors.

In reply, a representative from Hawaiian Electric, acting as an attorney, communicated on August 11 that certain potential evidence may have already been compromised during firefighting efforts. They clarified that this compromise wasn’t attributed to the utility company itself, but rather to other involved parties.On August 18, a judge authorized an interim discovery order outlining the necessary steps the company must take regarding evidence within the vicinity.

Following the fire’s outbreak, a class action lawsuit was initiated, alleging that Hawaiian Electric failed to de-energize power lines before the fire, despite high winds and red flag warnings. As of now, the fire’s cause remains undetermined, although it’s suspected to have originated near a power substation, where authorities reported a downed power line early on August 8, 2023, according to the complaint.

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