Despite a widespread anxiety in anticipation of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s public safety power shutoff that sent locals swarming to gas stations and bustling through stores, Calaveras County has weathered the brunt of the planned emergency, with power tentatively to be restored by Saturday at the latest and few incidents to report thus far.
The lights are back on for more than half of the 24,391 customers in Calaveras County, the majority of which lost power on Wednesday in the late afternoon amid heightened wildfire risks.
As of 1:40 p.m. Friday, 12,439 customers in Calaveras County (or 51% of affected customers) had their power turned back on, according to Jeff Smith, with PG&E’s marketing and communications team.
The Calaveras County Office of Emergency Services could not be reached for comment, but District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper told the Enterprise that the communities of Copperopolis, Dorrington and West Point are still without power, based on conversations he has had with county staff.
Smith said that most customers should have their power restored by Saturday at the latest. The expectation was that power would be restored within 48 hours of fire weather clearing up on Thursday in the late afternoon, he said, adding that it could be longer for some.
“We understand this is really frustrating for customers, so we certainly do appreciate their patience,” he said.
Smith said that there have been several instances of damage to power lines that could have potentially caused fires throughout the utility’s service territory across the state, but was unable to provide specifics for Calaveras County.
The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office told the Enterprise on Friday that there have been “no major changes noted” in crime rates during the outage.
Similarly, Mark Twain Medical Center has not experienced any increase in emergency room visits, according to President and CEO Doug Archer.
The hospital’s clinic in Valley Springs remained open throughout the outage, and all other clinics countywide were back online Friday morning, with the exception of Copperopolis.
“I don’t know if we just got lucky or what, exactly,” Archer said. “I thought we faired through the outage really well, actually.”
Although most area homes were in the dark beginning Wednesday afternoon and well into Thursday, social media has remained an active hub for countywide communication, as locals took to Facebook to map the impacts of the outage and share information on ice deliveries and operational gas stations.
Words of admonishment were also shared on the platform, a steady drone of confusion and frustration surrounding the investor-owned utility company. However, many also voiced appreciation of PG&E’s employees on the ground and the businesses that managed to stay open, with or without power.
Business as usual
In Copperopolis, the supermarket and hardware store have remained open throughout the outage, much to the relief of locals.
Owner of both businesses, Kevin Young, said that he had to rent a third generator from Modesto in order to keep his Payless IGA Market up and running. Business has been booming, with customers “thrilled” to have access to supplies, hot food and coffee.
“You guys have been lifesavers,” one customer told her checker while buying groceries.
According to Young, even though it is unclear when power will be restored to the town of 3,600, there has been reason for optimism over the past few days, with an already close-knit community coming together to help one another.
In San Andreas, Treats True Value General Store is recovering from the impact of the outage, which forced the business to shut its doors on Thursday and melted much of its merchandise.
Without a generator, the store lost all of its ice cream and many other dairy items, Manager Fred Lavaroni told the Enterprise while working on a card scanner. Despite those losses, the supermarket was back in full operation by Friday morning.
The repeated warnings and delays issued by PG&E surrounding the outage had school administrators’ heads spinning, as the decision to cancel school became a waiting game of whether the utility would hold true to their word.
“We waited all day on Wednesday. It was actually almost a relief (when the power went out),” said Josh O’Geen, principal at Copperopolis Elementary School, where classes resumed Friday morning despite a continued outage in the majority of the town that severely impacted attendance. “The state expects us to be in school whenever the power is on in the school, regardless of everyone else. So, that’s where the problem comes in.”
Most schools in the county scheduled an early release on Wednesday, which led to minimal impact when the lights went out later that afternoon, Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik told the Enterprise.
However, all county schools were shuttered on Thursday, and on Friday, Avery Middle School was the last campus to remain closed, though power was restored later in the day.
According to Nanik, the district will have to make up for lost school days later in the year, or obtain a waiver issued by the state. A request for a waiver is being submitted, Nanik said, and he expects it will be approved.
County officials weigh in on outages and response
On a call from the heavily forested southeastern portion of the county, District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway said she was pleased with how the county handled the outage event.
She added that many residents along the Ebbetts Pass corridor were well-prepared, having been fairly accustomed to power outages during winter storms.
“Everybody was in good spirits,” Callaway said of people she talked to at resilience centers in Arnold, Murphys and Angels Camp. “For the most part I think it was well-managed. I’m sure when we Monday-morning-quarterback it we’ll find things we can do better, but considering the short amount of time our (Office of Emergency Services director and county administrative officer) had to put it together, I thought they did a superb job, and I’m very thankful to PG&E for getting power back on much quicker than we anticipated.”
Ebbetts Pass Fire District responded to a few calls related to warming fires, fire alarms going off and smoke concerns, but none were significant, Chief Mike Johnson told the Enterprise.
“I’m happy people were being careful during that red flag weather time period,” Johnson said.
Call volume for medical calls during the outage period was normal, he said.
If widespread proactive power shut-offs “have become the new normal,” Johnson’s concern is primarily with fire hazards associated with increased generator use and potential impacts to communications infrastructure.
Johnson said that cell service went down in Dorrington for a period, and that there was a weak signal in Arnold.
If cable landlines and cellular service were impacted, “how would people notify us with a 911 call?” Johnson said.
Some argue that preemptively shutting the power off does more harm than good, since fires start from more than just power lines.
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills said the planned outages are a reaction to the billions of dollars in liabilities the utility owes for starting destructive wildfires over recent years.
Preemptive power shutoffs in fire weather conditions “should not be done,” Mills said, adding that the majority of fires are man-made, and not caused by utilities. “I think this is simply a reaction. If you had to pay billions in lawsuits you’re going to get very active.”
Mills added that wind speeds in the Vallecito area did not meet PG&E’s criteria for a PSPS event.
“Somebody really missed it here,” Mills said. “Max speeds were only 5 to 8 miles per hour (MPH) with gusts of 12 MPH,” well below PG&E’s shut-off criteria of 25 MPH wind speeds. “We never got anything close to that … People are upset, they didn’t feel that this was necessary and that it could’ve been better thought out.”
Rather than holding customers hostage to mass power outages, PG&E, according to Mills, should be working harder to clear vegetation around its lines and upgrade its infrastructure to be more fire safe.
Stopper, whose district was largely unaffected by the outages, was of a similar mindset.
“In the event that it stopped a fire, I would assume that it would be worth it, but do we know if we stopped a fire or not?” Stopper said, with reference to wind speeds not meeting projections. “I think they would be in a better place if they were investing the money they would lose from a shutoff into better infrastructure.”