PG&E hits the road with a fire-prevention blitz

PG&E has hit the road with a fire-prevention blitz. 

On Wednesday night, an open house was held in Napa, with more than 100 people attending the two-hour session.

Representatives were spread across a hotel meeting room, in front of explanatory posters, answering questions from customers. 

The placards detailed such subjects as public safety power shutoffs, vegetation management, accelerated inspections, and hardening of the electric system. 

"Mainly, I want to know what we have to do to prepare for a shutdown," said Joan Pieper, a Napa retiree who attended with her husband, Keith. 

The couple pointed out their street on a map, and were assured it is not in a high-risk area, but could still experience a shutdown, because transmission lines to their area do pass through potential fire zones. 

"Just trying to keep the freezers alive, save as much food and stuff as we can," said Keith Pieper. "But it seems PG&E is damned if they do, and damned if they don't." 

Clusters of people were buzzing with similar questions. 

With catastrophic fires over the past few years caused by power lines contact with vegetation, PG&E is reorganizing under bankruptcy protection. 

One ratepayer came to the session, clutching a written statement he had hoped to deliver. 

"Power shutdowns are a political move to cover PG&E's liability," complained Raymond Klein of Suisun, "and California is not a third-world country, we're all paying for reliable power and not getting it."  

Klein voiced that same opinion Tuesday night at Suisun's City Council meeting, where PG&E made a power-shutdown presentation. 

Some elected officials have expressed displeasure that local government and constituents, must bear the costs of shutdowns, because the utility has neglected upgrades and maintenance.  

The open house format wasn't conducive to such criticism. 

"We understand this is definitely more than an inconvenience, it's a hardship," PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras told KTVU. 

"We understand the impacts of shutting off power and we want people to take steps now to be prepared."

Preparations include signing up for alerts, planning for medical needs and pets, preparing an emergency kit, designating a meetup location, and knowing how to manually open your garage door. 

"We could smell the fires but that was different, just hearing about it and reading about it," said .Debbie Roll, who moved to Napa from Burlingame six months ago. "It's very, very scary and I guess I came tonight because I want to understand what our risks are, should we get a generator, what should we do?"

Many people also voiced concern about tree-trimming underway on private property, employing sub-contractors from as far away as Tennessee and Alabama. 

"They aren't really arborists and they don't know if they're killing the tree by removing too much vegetation," said Gary Margadant, who lives on rural property and has been frustrated trying to talk with various tree crews. "They've been on our property, and my three neighbors, and they've left everything behind, all the trimmings." 

A county supervisor who stopped by the workshop has been conveying those gripes to the utility. 

"There is fuel left on the ground when the tree gets cut, and the tree belongs to the property owner, so that should be communicated," said Supervisor Diane Dillon, "but this is a new, different thing for all of us, with PG&E so energetic out there."

Everyone is aware the highly-publicized efforts now: upgrading, trimming, turning off power, comes far too late for fire victims of the past few years.  

As PG&E reaches out, ratepayers admit they're watching the company more closely than ever. 

"I read where there was a $10 million bonus being given to the executives, and that rang a little hollow," said Joan Pieper, "because we know PG&E has been lax." 

Another open house will be held in Santa Rosa, at the Finley Community Center, 2060 W. College Avenue, on Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.