PG&E power shutoffs bring back painful memories for North Bay fire survivors

Survivors of the North Bay firestorm in 2017 say Wednesday's Red Flag threat and widespread power shutdown add another layer to their trauma.  

"The wind comes and the fear is there," said Cathie Merkel, who lost her mother in the Tubbs Fire.

79 year old Sharon Robinson died, trapped in her home, near Riebli Road in the Mark West Springs area. 

"It is just a month of loss and grief and now this power shut-off, coming on the anniversary, how ironic," said Merkel.

Merkel was among dozens of people who attended a brief ceremony in Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa Tuesday evening.  

"This event is meant for reflection and remembrance," Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner told the audience. 

A bell was rung 44 times, once for every fire victim, both in Santa Rosa, and throughout the region. More than a dozen fires broke out on the night of October 8, 2017, and raged into the morning hours of October 9. Most were ignited by PG&E equipment that blew down and made contact with untrimmed vegetation. 
Winds made the fires uncontrollable, and Santa Rosa's Tubbs Fire roared in from Calistoga in only a few hours, jumping a freeway and engulfing entire neighborhoods. 

"I'm worried, we're looking at 60, 70, 80 miles an hour in some cases" said Chief Gossner, about the winds predicted this week for Sonoma and Napa peaks. 

Gossner fears that a long shutdown will cause widespread cell service problems. Not only will uncharged phones die, but more importantly, cell towers will too. 
Some, but not all, have back up generation, and even those that do will exhaust it in time. Without service, people won't be able to get the emergency alerts they signed up for. 

"The towers are really important and that was one of our big problems in 2017, we lost more than 70 towers early on and it cripples communications." 

Most communities have already spread word: all Sonoma County schools are closed Tuesday, including Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. Tuesday evening, residents were responding to the midnight shutdown by rushing out to gas stations and grocery stores. 

"Everybody's a little on edge but I guess this is what it takes for PG&E to prevent fires," said Chef Matt Weinberg of Willi's Wine Bar in the Town and Country Village. 

When the walk-in refrigerator stops working Wednesday, Weinberg will worry about perishables like the 500 fresh oysters just delivered. But he will also be thinking about how the restaurant burned to the ground in the firestorm. Its new location is well outside the fire zone, except that now the risk seems to be everywhere.    

"I'd rather worry about losing product than losing the whole facility, " said Weinberg.  

Congressman Mike Thompson attended the Santa Rosa ceremony, and acknowledged he's hearing complaints about the blackout. He and his wife are preparing too.    

"She's grinding the coffee beans tonight and I'll do a load of wash, so we can try to get ahead of it," said Thompson. "It's a terrible inconvenience, but on the other hand I don't want my house to burn down, we've all been through living hell and don't want to do it again."

Santa Rosa's Emergency Operations Center is being staffed around the clock, as public agencies watch for problems stemming from the outage. 

"It's horrible, we're already upset and sad because it's the anniversary, and then we lose power?", said Jessica Tunis, who came to the memorial ceremony to honor her mother.

Linda Tunis, 69, became trapped and died in her mobile home at the Journey's End Mobile Park.Her daughter has a blunt reaction to PG&E's strategy.

"If they are not sure they can't prevent a massacre overnight, then please shut the power off," said Tunis."I'd rather be hot and my food go bad, than dozens more die."