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Family of woman killed in Maui fire sues state and county, alleging negligence

The family of a woman who died trying to flee a wildfire on Maui is suing the county, the state and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners, alleging they neglected to maintain their fire-prone property.

The wrongful death complaint, filed Monday in state Second Circuit Court, is the first against the state and the landholder, Bishop Estate, related to the Aug. 8 inferno, which killed 115 people, left more than 300 missing and destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. Hawaiian Electric Co. is also named as a defendant.

It accuses them of negligence, alleging they failed to properly manage dry vegetation surrounding Lahaina and failed to provide adequate warnings and evacuation routes for residents. It also claims the power company failed to de-energize the power grid before the wildfire destroyed Lahaina, the former capital of Hawaii.

“They should have been able to get out,” said Anne Andrews, a lawyer for the family of Rebecca Rans, 57. “There was a total failure to groom that land and failure to maintain that land.”

The family is seeking unspecified punitive damages. It is the first of 18 lawsuits, many against the utility, arising from the fire to name a landowner as a defendant.

“As someone who has spent nearly my entire life in Hawai’i, I have witnessed firsthand how the Island of Maui has been taken over by invasive, non-native and flammable grasses and brush vegetation,” another Rans lawyer, Jim Bickerton, said in a statement. 

“The combination of weather, uncontrolled vegetation and decaying and neglected electrical infrastructure predictably created a tinderbox ready to explode in Maui,” he continued. “The risk was not theoretical — it was visible, palpable and entirely avoidable.”

Hawaii’s attorney general received the complaint Tuesday and was reviewing it, a spokesman said.

A spokesman for Bishop Estate, Sterling Wong, said in an emailed statement that “our hearts are with all affected by the Maui fires and their ‘ohana’ or family,” but it would have no further comment while the fires are under investigation.

Maui County did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Hawaiian Electric has previously said it shut off the power ahead of the fire, but the complaint maintains it was far too late. The utility did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Hawaii’s unchecked nonnative grasses have posed a fire threat for years, according to wildfire experts. The state has struggled in recent decades to address the problem and boost wildfire preparedness as lawmakers and officials consistently fell short of funding projects that could have helped prevent the wildfire, one of three fires that ignited on Maui that day.

The complaint claims Hawaiian Electric knew about fire dangers in the area since 2014 but waited until last year to make its first request to the Public Utilities Commission for money to harden its power grid even though numerous environmental reports had outlined the problems. 

The utility further failed to anticipate a high fire danger leading up to the Lahaina blaze despite a National Weather Service warning beginning Aug. 4 and previous wildfires that exploded under similar conditions, the complaint says. 

At the same time, county and state officials did not heed wildfire reports detailing threats to the area and failed to properly plan multiple evacuation routes, adding to chaos that led dozens of residents, including Rans, to be overtaken by flames. 

“Large landowners, including Bishop Estate, the State, and Maui County, had a duty to reduce fire risk to Lahaina and other vulnerable places, yet they undertook no or poor vegetation management,” the complaint reads.

Rebecca Rans.Courtesy Kathleen Hennricks

Rans, who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis, according to the complaint, and could walk only short distances, died trying to escape the flames with her partner, Doug Gloege.

Their bodies were discovered side by side days after the fire, the complaint says. Rans was found wearing one slipper, her body so badly burned that officials discouraged her family from viewing the remains. All that survived was her favorite gold bracelet with the word “Ku‘uipo” engraved on it, which translates to “sweetheart” in Hawaiian.

Rans’ remains were identified after her family filled out a missing person report and provided a DNA sample.

“Becky was a total free spirit,” said her sister, Kathleen Hennricks. “She is someone that had gone her own path and just had a beautiful sense of humor.”

Rans moved to Maui more than 20 years ago after a divorce, Hennricks said, and quickly fell in step with island life, swimming with dolphins and painting colorful landscapes.

Lawyers for the family said Rans and Gloege were most likely overcome by a firestorm too ferocious to outrun. Similar conditions have occurred in other wildfires, like the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, California.