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.