PG&E failure sparks fire fears in North Bay

A small grass fire is raising big questions for some Santa Rosa residents, who found it scarily similar to how huge fires started last October.

The fire, Wednesday night about 11 p.m. was caused by PG&E equipment that malfunctioned, and caught a power pole on fire. 

The pole is one of many along Summerfield Road, on the edge of woodsy Howarth Park, which has homes directly across the street. 

"Just from my front window, the living room lit up orange, and sparks," resident Jacqueline Gardina told KTVU, describing how she heard a popping noise, then power went out, followed by the fire. 

"It was like a giant fireball explosion, " said husband Chris Gardina, who shared cell phone video he shot of the flames engulfing the power pole, and spreading along the ground below. 

Unsure how the blaze might spread, the Gardinas scooped up their baby son and ran to gather emergency supplies they have had stockpiled since October's firestorm. 

"My in-laws lost their home in Fountain Grove," said Jacqueline Gardina, "so it's just re-living a nightmare, kind of feeling."

The fire remained small, and quickly-arriving crews had it out in fifteen minutes. 

"Electrical incidents are not uncommon," noted Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, surveying the charred scene on Thursday.

Lowenthal has been informed by the utility that an overhead regulator bank failed.

Answering KTVU inquiries, PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras responded by email, "we fully understand the concerns of our customers when they heard of incidents such as this." The company says it is investigating the incident. 

"Why? Why did it pop?," wondered resident Tammy Drew, who also lives across the street from the fire.
"That's the question, why did it explode?" 

The nearest households are grateful the slope on the city-owned park was weed-whacked a few weeks ago, so grass was low. 

It was also an evening with no wind, or the outcome might have been different. 

Santa Rosans are aware that CalFire, just last week, declared PG&E equipment failures and falling lines, were the cause of more than a dozen of October's fires. 

"We need PG&E but we want to be safe, we don't want to have disasters," said resident Morgan Pendergast, "and I want them to do their due diligence and really check up on these things so this doesn't happen again."

Contreras's statement also says all overhead lines receive a detailed inspection every five years, and that "electric-system assets like the one involved in the outage, are inspected annually."
Sonoma County has approximately 90,000 wooden power poles in Sonoma County. 

"Where we land on their priorities, I don't know," said Jacqueline Gardinas, "but I hope this is a wake-up call, if October wasn't a big enough wake-up call."

Fire officials understand the heightened concern, and the flurry of 911 calls that came in, more than 30 total. 

"Our community is very sensitive to grass fires, they're alert, they are vigilant, especially this time of year," said Lowenthal, "so did it surprise me we received that many calls? Absolutely not." 
Power to about 4,000 households was restored around midnight.

At the Gardina household, the emergency supplies were stowed away again, but doubts about the power system linger.   

"It's scary. Do I feel safe with all these around my house now? I don't know," admitted Jacqueline Gardina.  

The fire, so close, also made some residents realize how much stress they still carry, from last fall's disaster.  

"Kind of a trauma response," said resident Nick Sholley, describing how his wife reacted to the burning power pole. 

"She was having trouble catching her breath, couldn't think clearly, running around, so really feeling that way, that surprised her".  

The Howarth Park area is about eight miles from the northern portions of Santa Rosa that burned in October.