“We realize and understand the impact and the hardship as the result of this decision that we’ve made,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said at a news conference Wednesday.
But employees and contractors “have families that live in your communities, they have friends that are members of your communities,” Singh added. “So let’s just ensure their safety as well as they are doing this work in the interest of your safety.”
Power companies worried about California’s devastating wildfires are increasingly turning to planned shutdowns. PG&E says this latest, unusually disruptive measure, which could last several days, was prompted by the dry winds that helped start disasters before. The outages have upset customers, closed schools and workplaces and raised fears that people who rely on electricity for medical needs could be caught unprepared.
Some have questioned this week’s shutdown, which PG&E expects to affect 800,000 people, as possibly excessive. About 650,000 customers were expected to lack power Wednesday evening, the company said; power has been restored to tens of thousands of customers since the shutdown began, and PG&E said late Wednesday that it “anticipates being able to restore power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers tonight or early Thursday morning.”
“This cannot be something that can be acceptable nor long-term,” state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) told the Los Angeles Times, saying power shutdowns should be “surgical.” “This is Third World, and we are not,” he added.
Lawmakers have also accused PG&E of fueling the risks that prompted the shutdown with poor management and maintenance. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a news conference Wednesday that he was outraged by the outage “because it didn’t have to happen.”
Affected residents who spoke to The Washington Post blamed PG&E, too.
“It’s ridiculous, all political,” one Napa Valley man, Gregg Bowman, said. “This company is so screwed up.”
PG&E officials are quick to acknowledge people’s anger but maintain they are prioritizing safety and balancing dueling threats.
“There are risks of keeping the power on when there are really dangerous fire conditions, and there are risks with turning the power off,” PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith told The Post. “We’re constantly weighing those two factors.”
While PG&E responded to the alleged attack on a company vehicle by calling for customers’ understanding, law enforcement has not announced a motive.
A PG&E employee was driving a truck Tuesday evening in Northern California’s Colusa County — before the electricity cutoffs — when a bullet shattered one of the vehicle’s windows, the California Highway Patrol told the Associated Press. The driver was not hurt, according to the AP.
CHP is investigating the incident, which occurred north of the town of Maxwell as the staffer headed southbound on Interstate 5, according to authorities. A white, Chevy-style pickup may have pulled up beside the PG&E truck before the shooting, CHP Officer J. Sherwood told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Singh expressed particular concern over reported targeting of the vehicle.
“When you see a marked PG&E vehicle or contractors that are working on our behalf, again just a reminder, they are no different than our customers, and their families and their kids go to the same schools that our customers do,” he said.
Other incidents were raising security concerns elsewhere in the state where PG&E serves about 16 million customers.
Police in Oroville increased their patrols around PG&E properties Wednesday after an “angry customer” egged an office and left a “threatening note,” a department spokeswoman said. The extra patrols will continue for as long as the power outage lasts, she said.
No one has been cited for the egging, the spokeswoman added, saying that she could not share the contents of the note but that police think it was motivated by the power outage.
In San Francisco, staff erected an L-shaped barricade in front of the company’s headquarters while citing “the safety of our employees,” the Chronicle reported.
Smith declined to elaborate on what prompted the increased security in San Francisco and referred The Post to law enforcement for details on the egging and shooting reports. He also declined to discuss any additional security measures PG&E is taking.
Smith said the company’s employees are working hard to restore power quickly. The company expects conditions to improve Thursday to the point where employees can begin inspecting thousands of miles of power lines. PG&E hopes power can be restored within 48 hours of the inspections’ start, but Smith warned the outages could last longer.
“We know that turning off the power for safety is not popular with some, but it is needed for public safety,” he said.