PG&E faces some criticism for handling of fire safety shutdown

PG&E is facing criticism for its handling of a fire safety shutdown, and the lead-up to it. 

Power for thousands of residents in Butte, Yuba, and Nevada counties was still being restored Wednesday night, but the other four counties affected were back to normal by about 6 p.m.

All had been de-energized Wednesday between 2 and 4 a.m., in anticipation of high fire risk conditions.  

"There's a heck of a lot more work needed, this is not enough, not good enough," said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who represents residents in the hills along Mark West Springs and Porter Valley Roads, affected by the outage.

By the time 1400 customers in Sonoma and Napa Counties were re-energized, they had been without power approximately twelve hours on a 100 degree day. 

"Average at best, mediocre at best," was PG&E's grade, according to Gore, whose district includes the area of the devastating Tubbs Fire.

"Average ain't good enough when you're talking about people's lives," said Gore, "so anything other than good coordination, open transparency and cooperation is a failing grade." 

How well customers fared seemed to depend on whether they had another power option. . 

At the Safari West wildlife preserve, several large generators hummed all day Wednesday, keeping operations normal and guests and tour guides comfortable. 

At The Petrified Forest a few miles away, there was no back-up power and a different outcome. 

The gift shop and guestrooms were open but dark and empty. 

The  phones, water, and sewer are all dependent on electricity. 

Only the nature trails on the 400 acre property were unaffected. 

"It's not a very welcoming environment and it hurts business of course," said owner Barbara Angell.

"I don't see high winds but I'm at the tail end of all this, trying to do the best I can." 

Angell says it's not just the outage but days of fluctuating alerts- and uncertainty- that caused her reservations to cancel. 

"I don't blame them, you want to know the place you stay will have water and electricity," said Angell, "and I can't promise that because I don't know how these decisions are being made." 

Gore says there were times the utility kept officials in the dark when they pressed for more clarity on operations and the criteria being used. 

He also notes local jurisdictions spent significant time and money to mobilize first responders and staff.

The shutdown- originally threatened for 40,000 people across two North Bay counties- ended up affecting a fraction of that. 

Gore notes shutdowns are double-edged for PG&E.    

"It's not to just stop a fire but to stay away from the liability that could be caused from a fire," he explained, "but our point is that shutting down the grid, creates an emergency in and of itself."

In response, PG&E says it had to shift its plans as weather forecasts changed, and remains committed to early- and widespread- alerts. 

"We're so glad we didn't have to turn off those thousands and thousands of customers," said spokesperson Deanna Contreras. 

"It's our goal to let everybody know, the cities and counties across our area, of this potential weather and alerting customers as soon as we could."

Those in high-risk areas expect to go dark again under the PSPS program, and hope it's merited.  

"They're being precautionary, but where is the balance, who's deciding what the balance of this is?" said Angell.

Under guidelines from the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E has sole discretion over the timing and scope of its safety shut-downs. 

It will have to prepare a report on the recent event for review by the CPUC.