SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Pacific Gas and Electric cancelled plans to turn off power to thousands of homes and businesses in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties early Wednesday after a major wind storm predicted to blast the Bay Area lost its punch.
The National Weather Service cancelled a wind advisory for the region, but a Red Flag Warning remained in effect until Wednesday afternoon because of the extremely low humidity levels.
The lack of wind gusts in the 40-50 mph range was good news for the firefighters battling the massive Kincade Fire in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, but was sure to fan the flames of anger among PG&E customers, many of whom have been out of power since the weekend.
Wednesday morning, PG&E confirmed that a weather “all clear” had been issued to nearly all the areas impacted by the Oct. 29 PSPS event, with winds subsiding enough for crews to begin safety inspections.
PG&E said they had restored power to 312,000 customers since the all clear was given Wednesday morning. 53,000 more remain without power late Wednesday evening, but should be restored by the end of the day Thursday.
Thousands of homes and businesses in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties did have their power turned off Tuesday as a part of the new planned outage. The utility said in all, approximately 510,000 homes and businesses in 22 counties had had their power turned off in anticipation of the strong winds.
By 6 p.m. Wednesday, Marin County officials said 96 percent of the more than 100,000 residents that lost power on Oct. 26 had finally had their electricity restored.
In a court filing Wednesday, PG&E said that they have found 56 instances of equipment damage that could have sparked wildfires in Northern California following the PSPSs in October. In a news conference later in the day, PG&E officials increased that number to 83.
PG&E President and CEO Bill Johnson said as long as power shutoffs remain the best tool PG&E has to limit electrical equipment from sparking wildfires, it’s a “tool we will use.”
Johnson asked residents to allow PG&E crews to do their work. He said on Tuesday that someone intentionally ran a PG&E worker in a PG&E vehicle off the road intentionally.
Sonoma resident Melanie Meraz is on her fifth straight day without power.
“I have two kids and they haven’t been dealing with it very well,” said Meraz. “It was, like, in the 20s last night so without a heater, that was a nightmare.”
We brought in extra support to try to give everyone that little break in between these two shutoffs because we know that these have been multiple days. A lot of people were not able to have that break, said Contreras.
On Wednesday, Governor Newsom reiterated while speaking at a Santa Rosa food bank: he will hold P&GE accountable.
“Enough is enough. And that is on us to prove, not just assert,” said Newsom. “And you’re going to see aggressive actions in real time. We’re not going to wait.”
As far as reparations for customers for the Oct. 9 shut off, the company will provide $100 for each household and $250 for each business, though that’s likely not enough to cover losses for many people.
It was the fourth major power shut down in a month — a strategy the massive utility that handles delivering electricity to customers from the Bay Area to the Sierra — has undertaken to make sure its equipment does spark a repeat of past devastating wildfires linked to its downed power lines.
Even with the outage plan deployed, PG&E equipment may have sparked the devastating Kincard Fire a week ago and damaging blazes in Lafayette and Martinez over the weekend.
Lawsuits from past wildfires have driven the large utility into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and sent its stock tumbling on Wall Street. Shares have lost half their value since last Thursday.
That leaves many Californians skeptical of PG&E’s motives for the blackouts. While the utility claims the outages are merely to protect public safety, others believe they are in place in an attempt to limit liability for fire damage.
The utility has set up centers where people can go to charge phones and laptops and get free water, snacks, flashlights and solar lanterns, but some contend PG&E isn’t concerned enough about the inconvenience.
“It’s so obvious it’s just to protect them from more liability,” Janet Luoma of Santa Rosa said at a Red Cross evacuation shelter.
In some areas, PG&E line crews have been targeted by angry customers.
“There have been some incidents against PG&E employees that are simply unacceptable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom while touring an evacuation center in Northern California. “I understand people’s outrage at this moment, their fear and their anxiety, but please do not take it out on the hard workers that are out there quite literally trying to keep people safe.”
“We had a car that was driven off the road. We’ve had rocks thrown. We’ve had death threats. These folks are trying to do their work,” he added. “They didn’t create this mess. They are trying to fix it. We’ll hold the corporation responsible.”
On Tuesday night, PG&E did announce it will give a bill credit to people affected by the Oct. 9 outage. Newsom announced the credit earlier in the day at a news conference in Southern California.
“This is significant because utilities in the past have never credited customers for these disruptions,” Newsom said.
In a statement, Johnson said, “We have carefully considered the Governor’s request to provide reimbursement for our customers impacted by the Oct. 9 PSPS, and we have agreed to move forward with a one-time bill credit for customers impacted by that event.”
Still, the anger and frustration among customers who have lost power continues to mount.
At a shelter in Santa Rosa, Chris Sherman plugged his laptop into a wall outlet and charged his phone while he waited for the all-clear to go home, while anticipating that once he did, he could lose power.
“They don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing,” he said of PG&E. “I’m not sure that they’re really protecting anything.”
In Lafayette, where many lost power on Saturday, people criticized PG&E for poorly communicating about the shutoffs.
“Are we getting power tomorrow, are we not getting power tomorrow? We don’t know,” said Kelly Bitzer, who came to a Safeway supermarket looking for an outlet to charge her phone.
“PG&E has spent millions of dollars giving bonuses to their executives, but they can’t keep up with their infrastructure needs,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”
The California Public Utilities Commission plans to open an investigation into the blackouts that could result in fines against PG&E if it is found to have violated any regulations.
The commission said it also plans to review the rules governing blackouts, will look to prevent utilities from charging customers when the power is off and will convene experts to find grid improvements that might lessen shut-offs next fire season.
PUC President Marybel Batjer said the state can’t continue experiencing such widespread blackouts, “nor should Californians be subject to the poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited.”
© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.