Pacific Gas & Electric officials said Friday that power had been restored to 48 percent of Tuolumne County customers and estimated 98 percent would be reconnected by 6 p.m.

Power began coming back on in downtown Sonora and other parts of the Mother Lode shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday, marking the beginning of the end of a 24-hour forced blackout imposed on more than 50,000 local customers by investor-owned utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric to reduce wind-driven fire dangers.

There was little local joy to be had in the news for those paying attention to what the utility’s communications people have said this week, as PG&E officials have stated in multiple staged briefings that public safety power shutoffs are now to be expected whenever red flag warnings and other weather forecasting shows potential for extreme wind-driven fire danger.

In Calaveras, the county office of emergency services director said the re-energization timeline in Calaveras was unclear and his department expected different areas of the county would be re-energized one at a time.

Pacific Gas and Electric crews were cleared to inspect and assess equipment for restoring power earlier Thursday afternoon in 14 of more than 30 counties impacted by the utility’s forced shutoffs up and down central and northern California.

In addition to Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, steps toward restoring power and switching to live electric power lines were under way in Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Alpine, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

“Our power at administration just came on about 10 minutes ago and I know our IT office on Morningstar came on about 30 minutes ago,” Liz Peterson with Tuolumne County’s office of emergency services, said before 3:30 p.m. “I haven't been able to confirm other locations yet but I think things are coming on quickly.”

Utility crews were given the go-ahead to start inspecting PG&E power lines in Tuolumne County around 12:30 p.m., Peterson said. Workers and helicopter crews were staged and ready to go Thursday morning.

Earlier Thursday, Pacific Gas and Electric restored power to 126,000 customers by 6 a.m. in other parts of the Golden State, a PG&E spokesperson said.

Peterson, working with information she was receiving in phone conferences with PG&E, said earlier Thursday it’s important to keep in mind it will still take multiple days to have complete power restoration for all of Tuolumne County’s PG&E customers.

Asked about cell phone problems for AT&T customers in Tuolumne County on Thursday, a contract spokesperson for the telecommunications corporation in Southern California sent a prepared statement that did not answer the question for people in Tuolumne County.

“We continue to communicate with PG&E and SoCal Edison during this event,” the AT&T statement said. “We're continuing to closely monitor our network and are deploying resources from other states to support our customers and public safety, including hundreds of additional generators.”

In spite of federal government forecasts and PG&E forecasts for offshore devil winds and a Diablo windstorm bringing extreme fire dangers to the north and central Sierra foothills, there were no reported fires related to PG&E equipment anywhere in the utility’s multi-county public safety power shutoff zones, which included parts of the Bay Area.

The utility giant PG&E, which has come under withering criticism statewide for imposing forced blackouts due to forecasts of heightened wind-driven fire dangers, said it received “many preliminary reports of vegetation-related damage to its equipment” in some power shutoff areas.

Since no fires were reported in PG&E power shutoff zones, reports of vegetation-related damage to PG&E equipment are likely to be derided by critics as weak justification for shutting off power to an estimated 800,000 people during the current multi-day emergency created by the utility.

Kathryn Gallino with Calaveras County’s office of emergency services said PG&E planned to begin re-energization of power lines in Calaveras at 10 a.m. Gallino was also working with information she received in phone conferences with PG&E.

“We hope to be fully restored within 48 hours but that is dependent on how line inspections go,” Gallino said. “I am not aware of any fires.”

Asked for a list of the counties where 126,000 customers were restored by 6 a.m. Thursday, Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said she would try to find out.

PG&E weather staff reported peak gusts of 77 miles per hour at Mount Saint Helena West in Sonoma County, and 75 mph at Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County since 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Both of those areas were de-energized by PG&E during the power shutoffs.

Law enforcement in Tuolumne County, including Sonora-area California Highway Patrol, the Sheriff’s Office, and Sonora Police, reported no arrests overnight related to power shutoffs and described the night with communities darkened by forced blackout as uneventful, nothing out of the ordinary, with no major crimes or issues.

Peak wind gusts recorded overnight in Calaveras County included 49 miles per hour at Camp Connell, 28 mph near Murphys, 18 mph at Angels Camp, 17 mph at San Andreas and 15 mph at Valley Springs, said Sierra Littlefield, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento. Top gusts in Tuolumne County included 31 mph at Mount Elizabeth near Twain Harte, 17 mph in the Sonora area, and 16 mph near Groveland.

Top wind gusts overnight near Calaveras and Tuolumne counties included 24 miles per hour in Mariposa County, which was not part of a red flag warning area identified by the National Weather Service.

“As I’m sure you have all gathered by now, PG&E saw some significant gusts of wind last night but not in all areas of the PSPS like had been originally predicted,” Peterson said shortly after 8 a.m. today.

National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento say a red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions has been extended through 10 a.m. Friday for an area that includes elevations from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, portions of Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, and the Stanislaus National Forest.

In Calaveras County, a backup generator at a Calaveras County Water District water treatment plant in Copperopolis failed overnight and the treatment plant was shut down as of 8 a.m. Thursday.

“Crews are doing everything possible to get it back online today, but we don’t yet know how long the plant will be offline,” Joel Metzger with Calaveras County Water District said. District workers filled all treated water storage tanks in Copperopolis last night but storage is limited.

In normal conditions the district’s treated water storage can meet the Copperopolis community’s demand for about 24 hours, Metzger said. If fire hydrants are needed for emergency responses the water will not last nearly that long. The district is urging all customers in Copperopolis to use water only when absolutely necessary.

Personnel with Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit responded to three fires in the past 24 hours and they were all before 1 p.m. Wednesday, and before the strongest period of dangerous winds kicked in overnight.

According to Cal Fire TCU communications staff, the fires were reported at 7:17 a.m. Wednesday in the 10000 block of Quartz Drive, Wallace Acres; at 10:25 a.m. Wednesday in the 18000 block of Eagle Ridge Drive in East Sonora; and at 12:43 p.m. Wednesday in the 15000 block of Highway 108 at Lovers Leap outside Oakdale. All three fires burned less than one acre.

Peterson said a PG&E website is now operational and people can go on there to try to find an estimated time for power restoration in their neighborhoods. The site is at www.pge.com/pspsupdates online. People who need wifi and device-charging to get on the internet can go to a center set up by PG&E at the parking lot adjacent to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds off Stockton in Sonora.

At a PG&E briefing staged Wednesday evening in San Francisco, a vice president for asset-risk management and wildfire safety estimated 800,000 total PG&E customers were impacted by the planned public safety power shutoffs in more than 30 counties at some point.

De-energization of power lines was necessary in some PG&E coverage areas with no winds whatsoever because of the interconnectedness of the Pacific Gas and Electric grid, Sumeet Singh with PG&E said.

More than 8,000 PG&E workers and staff are involved in vegetation management for the utility, Singh said. Reducing fire threats on all the utility’s power line corridors is a multi-year journey and it will take many years to complete work to reduce significant risks to PG&E’s infrastructure, the same infrastructure that has been blamed in connection with some of the state’s deadliest and most destructive fires in Golden State history.

Pacific Gas and Electric customers should anticipate more power shutdowns like the current one until more work is done on PG&E’s lines and infrastructure, Singh said.

“We want to reduce the duration and frequency of public safety power shutoffs, but we’ve seen conditions like this three years in a row,” Singh said. “Just like we’re here in a known seismic area, dealing with wildfires is part of our environment.”

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




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