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With all power restored in Bay Area, PG&E documents at least 50 cases of damage to lines

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Hours after electricity was restored Saturday to all Bay Area PG&E customers, officials with the utility said their crews had located at least 50 instances of weather-related damage to power equipment within outage zones, including 13 in the North Bay — about half of them in Sonoma County.

Another 100 or so cases around the greater Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada foothills were still being evaluated Saturday but are suspected of resulting from the same gusting winds that prompted the utility to shut off power to about 800,000 customers Wednesday in a controversial effort to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Power was restored to 100% of affected Bay Area accounts by 10 a.m., and nearly all accounts across PG&E’s vast service area in Northern and Central California.

The reported damage included instances where trees or tree limbs came into contact with power lines or brought them down to the ground altogether. One such instance in Napa County — a broken tree branch tangled in a distribution lines — was featured in a photo shown to reporters during a news conference Saturday in San Francisco.

The findings demonstrate how vulnerable the region would have been to another destructive wildfire had the lines not been de-energized ahead of time, said Sameet Singh, PG&E’s vice president in charge of the community wildfire safety program.

“I think all of us are all too familiar with, unfortunately, what this potential damage could have done,” Singh said, referencing the North Bay firestorm of two years ago and the Camp fire in Paradise just last year.

The recent outage affected more than 2 million people in parts of 35 California counties, including about 66,000 customers — some 200,000 people — in Sonoma County.

PG&E only last year began to employ preemptive shutdowns, a tool long used in Southern California during extreme wind events to ensure damaged power equipment or wind-whipped trees don’t ignite wildfires during the most fire-prone conditions.

But the scale of last week’s disruptions and poor communication about when outages would take effect — and over how large an area — stirred widespread public resentment. Many already are distrustful of the investor-owned utility in the wake of deadly and destructive wildfires linked to its equipment, as well as its decision to file for bankruptcy protection while facing $30 billion in potential fire-related liabilities.

PG&E President and Chief Executive Bill Johnson on Saturday fought back against what he said were inaccurate “storylines” in circulation, fed by what he conceded was the “lack of trust” that the company needed to repair and by the hardship endured by those who lost power.

“One of the main misconceptions is that we did this to save our skin,” he said. “I can’t really fathom how that would work for us. But that’s the storyline. ... It is false.”

“Another misconception is that we turned off power because our system is in shambles — I think I saw that word — that we’ve long neglected maintenance,” Johnson said. “What needs to be said here is that our system in the high fire areas meets or exceeds the regulations that govern our business. How do I know that? Because we spent the last nine months doing an accelerated process to inspect every mile of transmission and distribution line in high-threat areas. Whenever we found problems, we fixed them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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