For Northern California’s most vulnerable residents, PG&E power outages raise fears, anger

Derrick Hodge changes the oil on a customer's car with no power at Tom’s Car Care Center in unincorporated Cedar Ridge near Grass Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. switched off power to tens of thousands of customers in the Sierra foothills due to continued dry, hot and windy weather conditions. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

ROUGH AND READY — Jennifer Bauer got a taste this week of Northern California’s new fire safety normal and didn’t much care for it. After a planned power outage left her with a dead refrigerator and no air conditioning, there was little else she could do Wednesday but sit outside her sweltering trailer and wait for the lights to come back on.

“That’s a sauna,” the 55-year-old part-time cleaner said, gesturing toward her trailer. It was the second time this week that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had cut power to this small town in Nevada County, part of planned “public safety power shutoffs” that affected tens of thousands of the utility’s customers in Northern California.

“All my food that I had in my fridge is spoiled,” Bauer said. “What’s happening now is very unsafe.”

Her neighbor, Roger Wirtz, 64, felt the uncertainty acutely. A paraplegic veteran who lives in a trailer in this tiny town outside Grass Valley, Wirtz always keeps one of his three phones within reach in case he needs help. But after Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to a broad area of Nevada County to stave off a possible wildfire, Wirtz’s phones were dead. “Falling is my greatest fear,” he said. “In my waking hours, that’s all I think about.”

Wednesday marked PG&E’s biggest planned “public safety power shutoff” since last October, affecting nearly 50,000 customers in seven counties from the North Bay to the Sierra Foothills, where a forecast of high temperatures and winds prompted the National Weather Service to issue red flag warnings for increased fire danger. It followed a smaller shutdown Monday that had been prompted by similar forecasts.

By the evening, the troubled utility’s decision to cut off power had not brought about the catastrophic scenarios some had feared. But for the most vulnerable residents, living without electricity amid 90-degree heat brought discomfort, fear and anger.

In Rough and Ready, which was affected by both outages, the power had been off for all but 12 of the previous 48 hours. Many residents here use well water, and without electricity, pumps had stopped and taps ran dry. Some residents lacked transportation to get to nearby areas in Grass Valley and Nevada City, where power was still on. Food in refrigerators and freezers was spoiling.

Down the hill from Wirtz, Josslin and Mike MacMenigall sat on the porch of their trailer, stewing over PG&E and the planned shutdowns. The last two nights had been bad for Mike, 64, who has nine stents in his heart and relies on a machine for breathing while he sleeps. With no electricity, the machine doesn’t work, and Mike has to sit up in a chair all night with an oxygen tank. “It’s more dangerous being off the machine than the wind and the fire danger,” he said.

Josslin left work as an in-home caregiver early Wednesday because she hadn’t been able to check on her ailing husband regularly — phone service in their trailer comes via cable, which requires electricity. “With a heart condition, it’s not good to be stressed,” she said. She fretted about how Mike would be affected if the power didn’t come on by Wednesday night, forcing him to use his oxygen tank again. “You worry that he’s going to stop breathing,” she said.

PG&E’s response had been frustrating, she said. A worker had come around the mobile home park Monday to warn people about the coming outages, and she had asked him what to do if the lack of power led to problems with Mike’s breathing machine, she said. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ He had no answers for what we do in a bad spot.”

PG&E previously had resisted shutting off power to customers amid hot, windy weather, citing safety concerns for those who rely on air conditioning — particularly the elderly — but the death toll from recent wildfires has shifted the risk equation.

In May, California fire authorities determined that PG&E’s equipment caused the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record, the Camp Fire that roared through Butte County in November 2018, incinerating the Gold Rush town of Paradise and killing 85 people. State fire investigators also determined that PG&E’s equipment was the cause of 17 destructive fires in and around California’s wine country in 2017. The utility also has been found responsible for the fatal Butte Fire that scorched parts of Amador and Calaveras counties in 2015, resulting in two deaths.

The company — which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, citing $71.39 billion in assets and $51.69 billion in debts from mounting wildfire-related claims and other liabilities — has proposed a plan to pay off creditors that would cap wildfire-related claims at $16.9 billion.

Wednesday’s shutdown was the largest since California regulators approved PG&E’s plan to shut down power lines at times of heightened fire risk. Last October, PG&E cut power to about 60,000 customers in the same areas as those affected this week, spokesperson Denny Boyles said.

As of Wednesday evening, no major incidents had been reported as a result of the power outages. By 2 p.m., when winds peaked, the utility had inspected 2,785 miles of distribution and transmission lines, Boyles said, and Sonoma and Napa county customers were expected to be back online by Wednesday evening. Other customers may not have electricity service restored until Thursday.

In Butte County, where the Camp Fire raged last fall, officials were unaware of any problems from the outage affecting nearly 23,000 customers in Chico, Oroville and surrounding towns. Miranda Bowersox, a spokesperson for the county administration, said social workers reached out to people whose health or safety might be at risk from an outage to make sure they had a plan for a power outage.

“I’m sure it’s an inconvenience to people,” she said. “I haven’t been notified of any huge problems at this point.”

Fire departments in Nevada County similarly said they were unaware of any major issues stemming from the shutdown. On Wednesday, firefighters with the Rough and Ready department were bringing cold bottled water to residents of the trailer park. “People are hot, they’re thirsty, they’re tired,” said Lt. Dave Hicks. “It’s the least we can do to help our community.”

Frustration with PG&E also ran high. “There’s no wind — this is not a weather-related problem, this is a PG&E problem,” said Jennifer Lublant, 48, a disabled paralegal student who was stranded in her stifling trailer with two dogs Wednesday. “They have one job and that’s providing service safely, and they can’t do either part of that.”

As he and his wife sat sweating in a trailer, Jerry Ledbetter, 56, a retired mechanic, blamed the utility for not doing a better job of maintaining infrastructure and clearing vegetation from around power lines.

“If they were a little bit more responsible about how they do things, Paradise wouldn’t have happened,” Ledbetter said, “and our power wouldn’t be shut off.”

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group, called it “unfortunate that PG&E is so incompetent that this is the only way to prevent it from igniting more fires.” She noted the shutoff comes as PG&E seeks another rate hike from consumers. “Pay more and get less appears to be the approach.”

But with the memory of the Camp Fire still fresh in people’s memories, some residents said that the alternative to the outages was far worse.

“I was prepared for it,” said Jenny Davis, 56, a Nevada City campground office manager who has battery powered lanterns and a generator and put extra water bottles in the refrigerator. “I would much rather deal with a little bit of not having power than deal with the anxiety that comes with the wind and the power lines.”

Wirtz, too, said he is giving PG&E the benefit of the doubt. He lives in fear of a fire, he said, and believed the shutoffs may be necessary to save lives.

“If this is for public safety and fire suppression, I’m all for it.”