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Power back on for nearly all PG&E customers after historic planned outage

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To see live power recovery status per North Bay city, go here

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To see a map of PG&E outages in the North Bay, go here

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To see a map of current winds in the North Bay, go here

As the power came back on for nearly all 738,000 PG&E customers in Northern and Central California who lived without electricity for several days, customers affected by the unprecedented shut-off expressed frustration and worried Friday about the potential for similar blackouts.

“I’m glad to have my personal comfort back, but we really need a better plan to protect our neighbors and citizens here,” Priscilla Sporl said. The Oakmont resident said she spent the shut-off worrying that her partner, who has Parkinson’s disease, would fall and injure himself in the dark.

About 99% of the 66,000 Sonoma County customers affected by the shut-off that was designed to minimize the risk of wildfires caused by electrical equipment had power as of Friday evening, PG&E said. Power was restored for all customers within Santa Rosa, the city’s Fire Department said. The shut-off began in Sonoma County early Wednesday and extended to about three dozen other counties statewide that rely on PG&E for power.

The utility defended the preemptive tactic by saying that it could help avoid large-scale wildfires seen across the state in recent years, and executives stood by that Friday evening during a news conference. Vice President of the Community Wildfire Safety Program Sumeet Singh said that PG&E crews found nearly 30 instances of damage along power lines, including downed power lines and vegetation caught in power lines. Much of the damage, CEO Bill Johnson said, could have easily sparked a fire if the lines had been energized.

“It was an extremely difficult decision for us to make. We know it would and did cause hardship for many of the people we’re privileged to serve,” Johnson said. “But given the choice we faced — the choice between hardship and safety — we chose safety, and safety will always be our first choice.”

The local restoration process began Thursday, after the critical fire-prone weather had passed. Since then, 17 of the 35 counties impacted by the power shut-off had power completely restored as of Friday night. PG&E dispatched a group of 6,300 workers and 44 helicopters to check power lines and fix broken equipment during daylight hours.

“No one, including me, is going to rest easy until the last customer is restored,” Johnson said at the news conference. “We have an army of personnel working on this.”

While most Sonoma County residents had power Friday, others watched as they were left in the dark about when their own power would return.

At DaVero Farms & Winery west of Healdsburg, founder and co-owner Ridgely Evers waited anxiously for the building’s power to turn back on Friday afternoon. He had received no calls or texts from the utility about when electricity might return at the winery, though the sighting of a PG&E helicopter nearby earlier in the day gave him hope, he said.

Customers who live in rural areas that are hard to access or near a line damaged during the windy conditions may have to wait longer for restoration of electricity, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. Hospitals, headquarters for police and fire officials and densely populated neighborhoods are given first priority.

But critics, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, faulted the utility’s antiquated equipment for the shutdown, adding that PG&E was ill-prepared to initiate the power shut-off. Many Sonoma County residents who lost power agreed, expressing frustration with the lack of communication about when their power would be restored.

To see live power recovery status per North Bay city, go here

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To see a map of PG&E outages in the North Bay, go here

_____

To see a map of current winds in the North Bay, go here

Sporl’s Oakmont home regained power late Friday afternoon, but she said she was frustrated that PG&E didn’t list any restoration times for her neighborhood on its website.

“I really felt abandoned,” Sporl said. “We were prepared, but the fact that there was no communication on the restoration end? That was the big deal.”

Johnson admitted at Friday’s press conference that from a communication standpoint, PG&E was “not adequately prepared for the event.” He said the shut-off itself went very well but that the utility must improve its website — which crashed multiple times over the three-day outage — as well as its communication with customers and local agencies.

Customers also complained about the magnitude of the outage, with some calling it excessive.

John Bucher owns Bucher Farms near Healdsburg, and used generators to keep his operation running. While he planned the best he could, the length of the shut-off was stressful for him and his employees.

Bucher said the weather conditions in his area were not those of a high fire risk, and felt that the utility could have reduced the scope of the areas affected by an outage.

“We absolutely want everyone to be safe,” Bucher said. “But it seemed like quite a bit of overkill and the length of time to get everybody up and going ... it just didn’t seem to be warranted.”

Many residents worried about the impact future shut-offs could have on local businesses. Both Bucher and Evers said that outages are particularly harmful at this time of year because of harvest season, which is the busiest period for farms and wineries. While Bucher was able to purchase or rent several generators, Evers wasn’t able to afford the large expense for his small-scale business.

“From a business perspective, the grid has become unreliable,” Evers said. “If this is the new normal, some businesses won’t survive and others are going to have to invest i=n equipment.”

Others worried about the impact these large-scale blackouts would have on more vulnerable residents. Sporl said that, beyond her and her partner’s issues, she noticed the toll the outage in her Oakmont community had on senior citizens and their caregivers.

Residents in several counties with severe medical conditions frantically trekked to community centers to power the machines keeping them alive during the shut-off this week. Family members had blamed the outage for the death of an El Dorado County man dependent on an oxygen machine, but the coroner later said he died from severe coronary disease, the Associated Press reported.

Johnson said at the news conference that PG&E will work to narrow the scope of customers affected by future shut-offs. While he said the utility was doing all it could to strengthen its equipment to reduce the risk of igniting wildfires without a planned outage, he admitted that would take a while.

“The future of power shut-offs is not a future I desire to live in,” Johnson said. “But it’s a future we must be ready for, given the conditions and risks we face.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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