PG&E: Fire prevention power outage in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties to last until Monday night, Tuesday

Power is back on for most of the 17,500 customers in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties who had power cut due to fire concerns, but some are criticizing PG&E for poor communication.|

CALISTOGA - The power was out Monday at the Rena Mae hair salon on Washington Street, as it was across the small Napa Valley town and parts of neighboring Lake and Sonoma counties. But the water was running, and stylist Tami Aden washed and trimmed Ruth Gelinas' hair in the dim natural light coming through the store's front windows.

“We're kind of cranky at the moment,” said Aden, who lives in Middletown. “We're thankful we're not on fire.”

PG&E cut power for about 17,500 customers in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties late Sunday, darkening homes, offices, businesses and some schools. The blackout is expected to continue Tuesday for hundreds but ended for most people Monday after about 24 hours when risky fire weather conditions eased.

The large-scale, proactive blackout was the first in this area for the Northern California utility, a strategy called for by officials and residents impacted by devastating fires - including 17 major wildfires caused by PG&E power equipment, according to state investigators - that burned thousands of homes and killed dozens of people last year.

But the challenges brought by forced blackouts during an era of megafires began to take shape Monday, especially in Lake County where 11,000 customers lost power, mostly in and around Kelseyville and Cobb. Local and state officials criticized PG&E for poor communication in advance of the outages, saying it created significant problems, such as the needless cancellation of school in Lakeport. Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said first responders received inadequate notice from PG&E that hampered their efforts to help about 600 medically fragile people who lived in the blackout areas and are dependent on electricity.

State Sen. Mike McGuire called the lack of clear and timely communication from PG&E “unacceptable.”

“These mandatory power outages may be part of our new reality, but there needs to be some improvement on the approach, in particular clear, accurate and timely information,” McGuire said.

By 8:45 p.m. Monday, a PG&E spokesman said the company hoped to have power restored for 70 percent of customers by midnight but he couldn't say in what communities - or even in what counties - people would remain in the dark. He also couldn't say what areas had power restored Monday afternoon.

“All the information I have from the field right now is they estimate they'll have 70 percent of customers restored by midnight,” PG&E spokesman Jason King said.

Power can't be turned back on with the flip of a switch. Utility crews on the ground or in helicopters must inspect each line for damage before re-energizing them.

In response to criticism about the utility's communication, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras defended the company, saying it was too soon to evaluate the effort, but adding they will collect feedback and “continue to have this conversation.”

“We understand that it's frustrating,” Contreras said. “We wouldn't have a proactive shut-off of the power if there weren't a real threat.”

PG&E officials said the company began alerting people Saturday night that they could be included in the shutdown when the weekend's weather conditions pointed toward possible fire danger. The company warned approximately 97,000 customers, although it was unclear how. As company workers analyzed weather reports and fire issues, they honed the list, according to Contreras.

Officials starting turning off power about 8 p.m. Sunday to about 60,000 customers throughout its Northern California service area, including the 17,500 customers in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who represents the west county area where power was out, heard from dozens of people expressing a range of reactions, from concerned to angry.

“It's one thing to be shut down for a couple hours and inconvenienced. But when you have a highly concentrated population of elderly people who rely on oxygen and all kinds of things like that,” Brown said. “It's horrible. It wasn't well-planned.”

Brown said messages from PG&E about the blackout were “cryptic,” giving only partial information.

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said he understood the company wanted to take preventative steps, but he didn't feel the process had been thought through. He called for PG&E to communicate more effectively with first responders who must help those with special needs.

“This whole thing has been extremely difficult, extremely challenging,” Martin said.

Martin heard late Monday afternoon that power should be restored throughout Lake County by Monday night except for 18 customers, including Cobb Elementary School. “We'll still have issues with parents missing work, kids missing more school,” Martin said.

Lakeport officials were somehow led to believe that the city would be included in the blackout, prompting them to announce school closures Sunday. By Sunday night when the power remained on, it was too late to switch gears, forcing an unnecessary missed school day, Brown said.

Brown said he'll ask for an emergency item on Tuesday's Board of Supervisors' agenda “to deal with this.”

Martin said he had multiple concerns about PG&E's process. The most serious involved the company waiting less than one hour before the shutdown to alert sheriff's officials of about 600 people in Lake County blackout zones who were “medically fragile,” he said.

The blackouts were triggered by a red flag warning for dangerous fire conditions, which ended at noon Monday. While humidity levels were extremely low, temperatures should drop to the low 80s in the next few days with warm breezes, but not like the weekend's gusts.

“We're not expecting another red flag warning but significant fire weather risk because it's so dry and warm,” said Spencer Tangen, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Sunday night's strongest gusts were on Mt. St. Helena with 77 mph. Gusts in the 60 mph range were recorded in Lake County and on Mt. Diablo in the East Bay, Tangen said. Sonoma County had lesser winds, including gusts in the 30 mph range in elevations under 1,000 feet, he said.

In Kelseyville, just west of Clear Lake, most businesses were closed Monday or trying to operate in the dark. Armand Pauly, owner of the Polestar computer store, had his front door open but couldn't help his customers without power.

While he said he understood PG&E shut off electricity lines to prevent fires, he wondered Monday why it was taking so long to turn the power back on.

“I'm not happy about it. Everybody I talk to is not happy about it,” said Pauly. “If we're going to have to do this every time the wind picks up, this is going to be really old.”

In Calistoga, Andres Hernandez said he understood the reasons PG&E turned off electricity to the town, but said it did not provide proper notice to his family's business, the Café San Marco coffee shop. The family purchased a $700 generator in a bid to preserve ice cream and food at the cafe, but some went to waste during the outage.

“That's a lot of money,” Hernandez said.

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