PG&E exercises safety power outage: Calistoga businesses hurt

PG&E exercises safety power outage: Calistoga businesses hurt

It’s the middle of October, one year after the devastating wildfires, and Calistoga is in the national spotlight again for all the wrong reasons.

Power was turned off Sunday night in Calistoga, as part of PG&E's fire safety measures. By about 1:45 p.m. on Monday, power started coming on for some residents and businesses, and Calistoga Police said the power in the town was likely to be fully restored by 8 p.m. that night.

There was some confusion among residents and business owners as to when or even if the power was going to be turned off. PG&E sent out voice and text messages started a few days before the outage warning customers to be prepared in case of an outage, and to report any downed power lines. But some weren't sure if this meant the power was definitely going to be turned off, and some, like the Calistoga Police Department, didn't receive notice until the day before. 

"We didn't find out about it until Sunday. They're still working the bugs out," said officer James Inskeep. 

Michael Dunsford, owner of Calistoga Inn, was angry.

“The burden and cost of this effort (to prevent fires) is falling on the shoulders of small businesses, and that is unacceptable,” 

Dunsford estimated that the shutdown will cost him between $5,000 and $10,000 and is costing about 15 workers a day’s pay since he can’t open for lunch. Guests in three rooms demanded refunds Sunday night and left, and three more were talking about doing so Monday morning. The onsite brewery has six tanks with beer in production with no way to control the temperature, threatening several batches of fresh beer.

Where some restaurants opted to close early on Sunday, Dunsford chose to stay open since PG&E gave no specific time for a possible shutdown. When the power went down after 8 p.m., there were at least 75 guests in the restaurant, and a number of employees in the kitchen in the dark. He had deployed a generator, but a technical problem prevented him from turning it on, leaving everyone in the dark, including hotel guests who were using candles to get to their rooms and the bathrooms.

Dunsford said PG&E should have given a more specific estimate for the time of a shutdown, or waited until a later hour when most restaurants would have been closed anyway.

Dunsford, who is also the city’s vice mayor, said he did not feel any winds even remotely comparable to last October’s firestorms, and he worried that if PG&E is too aggressive in turning of power in the late fire season, it would deter tourists from coming to Calistoga in the heart of harvest season.

“If this is the State of California or PG&E’s plan for preventing forest fires in late October into early November, what’s that going to do to businesses,” he said.

Monday morning all businesses in town were closed, including the always bustling Cafe Sarafornia, the Calistoga Roastary, and Cal Mart, which left tourists and residents wandering the town looking for coffee and breakfast. The local schools were also closed for the day.

The only businesses with their doors open were a couple of retail shops and Calistoga Smoke Shop. Those business owners were upset and frustrated, saying they’ve never seen anything like this.

Andee Beresini has owned Sugar Daddy’s consignment store on Lincoln Avenue for 16 years.

“Why would they (PG&E) volunteer to turn off the power? I can see if it was warranted,” she said.

Matt Shimetz, manager at Mount View Hotel, said since the outage most guests have stayed on, but “I doubt anyone is going to check in. We’re trying to hang on to the ones we have. We’re disappointed but we understand what they (PG&E) have to do. But couldn’t they have given us a reprieve? It’s sending a message that October is a scary time to come here.”

Visitors looking for something to eat were being sent to the next nearest town, St. Helena.

At All Seasons Bistro, chef Kevin Kathman said that “everyone in the world” had been in to talk to him Monday about the outage including NBC, ABC, and the Associated Press.

Reporter Will Schmitt from the Press Democrat, in Santa Rosa, was in town interviewing business owners about the power outage. He said he was writing a story about "What it's like to live and work in a place in 2018 when the power goes out."

Kathman had all of the restaurant’s perishables packed in coolers and on ice, something he said he was “embarrassed” to show the world.

“Even if the power comes on in the next couple of hours, we can’t pull everything together for dinner,” he said, including gathering employees back to work.

All Seasons did remain closed Monday evening, however Hydro Grill, Checkers, Calistoga Inn, Thai Kitchen, and Johnny's at the Mount View Hotel opened for business. 

CAl Mart also opened later in the afternoon. That morning, Cal Mart employees said they barely had enough back-up power to keep the freezers going, and couldn't remember when the last time the store was closed due to a power outage. Last year, during the wildfires and Calistoga's evacuation, Cal Mart remained open, feeding the first responders. 

At the downtown Mount View Hotel on Lincoln Avenue, coffee had been brought in from Santa Rosa, and croissants had been delivered as usual, said General Manager Derrick Dumont. The hotel also worked with Comcast Sunday evening to have hotel phone lines forwarded to employees' cell phones. 

Power also went out at about 8:30 p.m., Sunday in Hidden Valley Lake. As of Monday morning, it had not been restored and power also was out in downtown Middletown. From KCBS at about 7 a.m., there were reports of huge gusts of wind on the top of Mount St. Helena.

"I was driving through there, past the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park at that time and didn’t see any trees moving. After cresting Mount St. Helena on Highway 29, on the Napa County side, I did see the trees moving in the wind," said Dave Stoneberg, editor of the St. Helena Star.

City of Calistoga public work crews had put up stop signs at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Washington Street to control traffic as of about 7:30 a.m., and there were three television trucks parked near the intersection, including one from San Francisco's NBC. 

Pacific Union College in Angwin has its own power system and was not affected by the PG&E outage. Classes and activities went on as usual on Monday, and the College Market remained open.

Pope Valley Elementary School cancelled classes on Monday. The school is running on generators, but many of the students and faculty are without power at their homes. Superintendent/Principal Ken Burkhart said he hopes to resume classes on Tuesday, but it will depend on whether power is restored to the rest of Pope Valley.

“We’re closed until the power comes back on,” he said.

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