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PG&E crews work to restore service in fire-ravaged Sonoma County

PG&E gas foreman John Bacon works to clear burned power lines along O'Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen, on Wednesday, October 18, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

A PG&E repair crew from San Jose struggled a bit Wednesday afternoon to sink a new power pole at the sloping edge of a cul-de-sac in the Wikiup hills.

“Pull up a bit, a little to the left,” one crewman shouted to the operator of the digger derrick on a large blue PG&E truck parked on sloping Knollwood Court. “Easy.”

It took about three hours to set the pole snug against a fire-damaged pole that would have its top portion cut off, with the power lines affixed to the new pole.

“Very tight quarters,” said Bryant Skaskiw, an apprentice lineman. “We have obstacles galore, but we’ll get it done — safely and on time.”

There were about 1,200 PG&E repair workers in the field Wednesday throughout Sonoma County, part of a brigade of 4,300 electric and gas crews, plus administrators and others deployed throughout the North Bay, with workers from Southern California and Oregon reinforcing PG&E’s ranks.

The goal Wednesday was to restore power to 1,000 Sonoma County customers, and by about 5 p.m. it had been achieved, cutting to 3,600 the number of customers without electricity, said Deanna Contreras, a company spokeswoman.

Crews will be working into the night, she said.

Skaskiw’s five-man crew has worked 16-hour days, starting with a report for duty at 6 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. It arrived here Oct. 10, a day and a half after a deadly firestorm roared in from Calistoga, killing 23 people in Sonoma County and obliterating neighborhoods and landmarks along the way.

Some 767 power poles were damaged throughout Sonoma County by the fires. About 400 had been replaced by Wednesday.

A Santa Rosa couple who lost their Coffey Park home in the wildfire filed a lawsuit Tuesday against PG&E. The suit claims the utility failed to maintain and repair high-voltage power lines, which they claim came into contact with parched vegetation, starting the Tubbs fire and several others still burning in Wine Country.

That claim is one of many being examined by investigators searching for the cause of the fires, which started Oct. 8 amid extremely high winds across the region.

PG&E issued a statement Tuesday saying it will cooperate with investigators but refrain from speculation about the cause of the fires.

“We are absolutely focused on the safety of our customers and communities,” Geisha Williams, CEO and president of PG&E Corp., said in an interview Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the pole Skaskiw’s crew planted would serve just one home, the lone survivor among the six houses on Knollwood Court. The “hard part of the job,” crew foreman Chris Johnson said, was to make sure electricity would flow only to the one unscathed house, which was unoccupied.

Throughout the hills on Wikiup Drive east of Carriage Lane, only chimneys and concrete foundations remained of most homes, some with the charred hulks of cars and trucks sitting in driveways. What had once been a bucolic neighborhood, with some homes boasting splendid views of the Santa Rosa Plain, was reduced to an apocalyptic landscape by the Tubbs fire early Monday morning.

There was no sign of activity, except for the PG&E crews and others on official business. Two uniformed military policemen manned a checkpoint next to a Humvee, and a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office search-and-rescue crew in bright orange shirts searched demolished homesites.

A family of deer — an antlered buck, doe and fawn — browsed in dry leaves beneath a fire-scorched tree.

Skaskiw said he did not mind the long work days, since his crew logs plenty of overtime keeping up with growth in Silicon Valley. “We’re used to the hours; it’s just hard being away from family” — in his case, Melissa, his wife, and their daughter, Blakely, 2.

Late at night, the repair crews return to a PG&E base camp on ranchland near the Graton Casino & Resort outside Rohnert Park. There are 2,100 people encamped there, with food, showers and laundry available.

“Pretty much everything you need,” Skaskiw said, especially with the upgrade from tents to trailers for sleeping quarters.

He hasn’t set foot in the glitzy casino. “Too tired at the end of the day,” he said.

Gas crews restored service to 1,500 Sonoma County customers Wednesday, Contreras said. About 10,000 remain without service, including 3,900 who were not at home to let workers in to relight pilot lights and 3,800 in areas Cal Fire had deemed unsafe for repair crews to enter.

PG&E hopes to get all gas customers restored today.

Power has been restored to 75 of the approximately 300 customers along Wikiup Drive, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.