A Hawaiian Electric employee repairs power lines in the aftermath of the Maui Fires in Lahaina, West Maui, Hawaii. Image Credit: AFP

Investigators in Maui are increasingly zooming in on one particular area outside of Lahaina as a possible source of the ignition point for the deadly fire that burned the seaside town to ash and killed more than 100 people in one of the worst US natural disasters in decades.

Federal, local and private investigators will be examining poles, power lines and other equipment that crews from Hawaiian Electric removed from a charred hillside area on the edge of a residential neighborhood that court papers have described as the "suspected area of origin." Late last week, a state judge ordered Hawaiian Electric to preserve the equipment, which is now stored in a secured warehouse.

The area of interest is just west of one of the utility's substations. Investigators from the ATF, including an electrical engineer, have been dispatched to the island to help local fire authorities determine the origin of the blaze.

"We are in regular communication with the ATF and local authorities and are cooperating to provide them, as well as attorneys representing people affected by the wildfires, with inventories and access to the removed equipment, which we have carefully photographed, documented and stored," Darren Pai, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, said in a statement. An ATF spokesman referred questions to Maui County officials, who didn't return requests for comment on the investigation.

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While no official cause of the fire has been determined, shares of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., which owns the utility on Maui, have fallen by more than two-thirds this month on investor concerns that the utility may be held liable for the fire damages. The company's credit rating has been cut to junk by three credit rating agencies. Late on Thursday the company said it would suspend its quarterly dividend to shore up cash, and the shares tumbled in after-market trading.

Officials say the wildfire has killed at least 115 people with about 1,000 still missing. Damages are estimated to be at least $5.5 billion.

On Thursday, the County of Maui sued Hawaiian Electric Industries for damages caused to the county's property by fires, including the blaze that destroyed Lahaina. The county alleges that Hawaiian Electric's power lines ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires, according to a statement. The utility was also sued by investors who claim that its share price has been hit in the wake of the deadly fire because its wildfire safety procedures were inadequate.

Area of Focus

Investigators are focused on an area west of an Hawaiian Electric substation near Lahainaluna Road where a resident shot a video that showed downed power lines surrounded by flames in the early morning of Aug. 8.

On Aug. 10, lawyers working on behalf of victims of the fire asked the utility to preserve evidence at the site. The next day, a lawyer for Hawaiian Electric responded with a letter that said it couldn't guarantee that all the evidence would be preserved.

A state judge on Aug. 18 ordered Hawaiian Electric to "itemize and store" equipment from the "suspected area of origin" that was removed from the site. The order stated that the court "has not considered or found any wrongdoing by" the utility.

Maui's fire department first received word of a 3-acre fire on the edge of Lahaina near the substation at 6:37 a.m. Aug. 8. 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.

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.

Investigators are looking into whether this fire was then pushed by high winds into the town of Lahaina, burning buildings to the ground.

Brenda Rice, a retired special agent for the US Forest Service and a certified wildfire investigator, said that based on satellite images of the pattern of the Lahaina burn scar that she reviewed for Bloomberg News, the fire appears to have originated west of the Hawaiian Electric substation and advanced down the hillside near Lahainaluna Road.

"If I were doing this investigation, that's where I would start to focus to locate the general origin of the fire," said Rice, who isn't involved with the Maui probe. Rice said it can take investigators weeks or even months to determine the exact cause of a wildfire.

Graham Lippsmith, an attorney representing Maui fire victims in a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric, said his team of investigators will have access to the area on Sunday.

"I think that's where everybody is focusing," said Lippsmith, whose firm had requested the court to order Hawaiian Electric to preserve the poles and wires that crews took from the location.

Lawyers for victims say their investigators along with federal authorities will be able to inspect the physical evidence collected by Hawaiian Electric on Sunday through Tuesday.