The most-asked questions at a Pacific Gas and Electric community wildfire safety open house in Sonora this week focused on marking trees and removing trees near power lines, and when, where, how long, and how often the utility will do public safety power shutoffs.

About 150 people came to the open house for Tuolumne County customers of PG&E in the Oak Glen Room at Best Western Sonora Oaks Hotel and Conference Center off Hess Avenue in East Sonora. The session was more like a meet-and-greet rather than a formal meeting.

Ron Kopf, a Sonora resident, developer, and an elected member of the Tuolumne Utilities District board, said he and others at TUD were interested in learning more about how proactive power shutdowns will work because not all of TUD’s facilities have backup generators on-site.

“We hope to have a sit-down and talk with them about it and figure how to mitigate impacts on our paying customers,” he said.

Kopf said he understands the need for power shutdowns when there are high winds and heightened fire danger. But TUD wants to be prepared. Kopf said he also came, as a resident, to make sure PG&E has his cell phone numbers so they can notify him when blackouts happen.

Ray Cablayan, a resident of Twain Harte and Calaveras District ranger for the Stanislaus National Forest, said he wanted to get clarification from PG&E people in person about tree markings and tree removals in his neighborhood that started last year.

“Back then they were saying or implying they would take trees within 12 feet of power lines,” Cablayan said. “Are they taking all trees out or just dead and dying trees? They clarified they are taking all trees within four feet of power lines, and dead or dying trees within 12 feet. My concern is the healthy trees within 12 feet of lines. They also assured me they will speak to property owners before they remove any trees.”

Jason Kuiken, the Stanislaus National Forest supervisor, said as a member of the public he wanted to know if he will lose power at his house and at his government office locations, and if so, how long those power shutdowns will last.

“They have a difficult issue,” Kuiken said. “They have good solutions, too. They’re trying to do the best they can.”

Jody and Robert Perry, who live up near the top of Phoenix Lake Road, said they came to ask PG&E when trees that were marked beginning back in August 2018 will be removed or trimmed.

“We did get some answers,” Robert Perry said. “I got the answers I was hoping to get. We tried twice on the phone and we got conflicting answers. This was worth the time and effort coming here tonight.”

Chuck Sloan, a semiconductor and biotech industries consultant and contractor from the Bay Area, said he recently bought some undeveloped land off Tuolumne Road. He said he came to the open house expecting a talk and he found the open house format a bit disappointing.

Sloan also said he believes people who blame Pacific Gas and Electric for starting fires and for its current bankruptcy are misguided.

“We’re going to have to pay for the bankruptcies if we use power,” Sloan said. “You can’t let the government control it because the government can’t manage its way out of a box. You can’t blame PG&E, for all these fires, for when the wind blows hard. Who’s going to pay for it? Cutting down trees and new infrastructure? We’re going to pay for it through our bills. The public should become educated on PG&E issues rather than blaming them for everything, and be prepared to pay for it.”

Alisha Lomeli with PG&E vegetation management said she was approached by about 25 people with questions about tree markings and tree removals. Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said she was approached by 12 to 15 different people who asked when, where, how often, and how long public safety power shutoffs will happen.

Merlo said it’s impossible to predict when and where the shutoffs will be necessary. She said communities already identified in Tier 2 and Tier 3 fire threat areas -- for elevated fire threats and extreme fire threats -- these communities are certainly more likely to be included in public safety power shutoffs. The shutoff program began last year and new for this year is inclusion of the need for shutting down the utility’s massive transmission lines when high winds and fire dangers are critical.

Merlo said PG&E has made efforts to identify every single electric customer statewide, a total of more than 5 million customers, letting each customer know they could be without power for two to five days when shutoffs are deemed necessary.

Deirdre Walke, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Pacific Gas and Electric, said she got a lot of questions from people like, “What do I do when the power’s off? I have a lot of medical equipment.”

They need to make plans in advance of future public safety power shutoffs, Walke said.

“They’ll need a standby generator or some other source of power. They need to determine what size generator they need, based on the medical equipment they need to run,” she said.

People with power-related medical needs and questions should call PG&E customer service at 1 (800) 743-5000, and make sure they are signed up for the utility’s Medical Baseline Customer Outreach, Walke said.

Pacific Gas and Electric is in the midst of bankruptcy reorganization and Cal Fire investigators in early May determined the Camp Fire, which burned 239 square miles, destroyed 18,800 structures and resulted in 85 civilian fatalities, was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by PG&E. It was the deadliest fire in state records.

In recent filings, Pacific Gas and Electric estimates it has liabilities, in respect to total wildfire-related claims, of $14.21 billion. Most of that total – $10.5 billion – stems from the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the Paradise area and killed more than 80 people in Butte County, about 175 miles north of Sonora.

The utility is hosting more than a dozen wildfire safety open house events in June and July, including Thursday in Amador County and June 17 at Mariposa County Fairgrounds in Mariposa.

Wildfire safety meetings are also planned June 11 in Redding, June 12 in Chico, June 13 in Chester, and June 20 in San Luis Obispo. More meetings are planned in Napa, Santa Rosa, Oakland and Walnut Creek.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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