Maui County is suing Hawaiian Electricclaiming the utility was negligent for not shutting off power as strong winds hit the island in the hours before the city of Lahaina burned. While the cause of the devastating Aug. 8, 2023, wildfire is still under investigation, forecasters had warned that powerful winds were expected, and West Maui had exceptionally dry conditions that put it at high risk for wildfires.

In many cases, however, deciding to shut off power isn’t as simple is as it might sound. We asked Tim Lieuwen, executive director of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech, about the risks and trade-offs utilities have to weigh in deciding how to respond during fire-risk conditions.

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The utility Pacific Gas & Electric acknowledged responsibility for equipment that started the deadly 2018 blaze that burned through Paradise, Calif. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
High-voltage power lines, like this one in North Cascades National Park in Washington state, often cross rugged terrain in areas in which it isn’t easy to bury a power line, or for firefighters to reach. Philippe Gerber/Moment via Getty Images
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