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PG&E executives wined and dined at a Sonoma winery before power shutdown

Calif. wildfires: Backlash as PG&E cuts power
California wildfires: Backlash as PG&E cuts power to 700,000 02:47

As PG&E prepared to shut down power for millions of California residents earlier this week, some of its employees were wining and dining 60 of its biggest customers at a Sonoma County winery.

The wine event on Tuesday, which preceded the grid shutdown by less than 24 hours, came two years to the day since deadly wildfires ravaged parts of Sonoma County, among other regions in the state. In a statement sent to CBS News, PG&E apologized "for the insensitivity of the timing and location of the event, given the two-year milestone of the 2017 North Bay wildfires."

The event, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and confirmed by CBS News, provoked outrage among consumers and California lawmakers. State Senator Jerry Hill, a Democrat, told the Chronicle that PG&E is "not deserving to serve Californians as a monopolistic, investor-owned utility." Others on Twitter called it "outrageous" and "disgusting."

The event was held at the Silver Oak winery, which touts its "casual elegance," according to the Chronicle. PG&E said its top executives "did not attend the event and were in the company's emergency operations center leading the effort around the Public Safety Power Shutoff underway."

PG&E on Friday said it would no longer hold "these types of events."

"I want to apologize to every one of our customers," PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson told the Chronicle. "Insensitive, inappropriate, tone deaf are the terms I would use to describe this."

Shutting off electricity

California's biggest utility faced hostility and second-guessing Thursday for shutting off electricity to millions of people to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

Gov. Gavin Newsom criticized PG&E over the shutdown, while ordinary customers complained about the unprecedented blackouts that began Wednesday.

PG&E defended its decision, noting the powerful wind gusts that raked the San Francisco Bay Area amid a bout of dry weather, raising the risk for wildfires.

"We have found multiple cases of damage or hazards" caused by heavy winds, including fallen branches that came in contact with overhead lines, said Sumeet Singh, a vice president for the utility. "If they were energized, they could've ignited."

PG&E begins power outage in California due to wildfire threat 02:57

Because of the dangerous weather in the forecast, PG&E cut power Wednesday to an estimated 2 million people in an area that spanned the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country north of San Francisco, the agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. By Thursday evening, the weather had calmed and the number of customers in the dark was down to about 510,000.

Inspections and repairs were expected to resume at daybreak and power could be restored Friday to many more customers, Singh said.

PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety, aimed at preventing the kind of blazes that killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and ran up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the company into bankruptcy.

"Do better"

Many of those affected by the power shutdowns, which could last as long as five days, were not so sure about the move.

Sergio Vergara, owner of Stinson Beach Market, situated on scenic Highway 1, on the Pacific Coast just north of San Francisco, operated the store with a propane generator so his customers could have coffee, milk, meat and frozen meals.

"I'm telling you as a plain human being, there is no wind, there is no heat," he said. "We never saw something like this where they just decide to shut off the power, but on the other side — preventing is a good thing, but it's creating a lot of frustration."

But in powered-down Oakland, Tianna Pasche said: "If it saves a life, I'm not going to complain about it.

CEO Johnson didn't respond to Newsom's criticisms but promised if future wind conditions require similar shutoffs, the utility will "do better" when it comes to communicating with customers. It's unacceptable that its websites crashed, maps were inconsistent and call centers were overloaded, Johnson said.

"We were not adequately prepared," he said.

Faced with customer anger, PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in Oroville. And a PG&E truck was hit by a bullet, though authorities could not immediately say whether it was targeted.

Wildfires erupt in California, destroying homes and vehicles 03:35

Singh, PG&E's vice president of community wildfire safety, urged people to be kind to workers out in the field, saying the employees and contractors "have families that live in your communities."

"Let's just ensure their safety as well, as they are doing this work in the interest of your safety," Singh said.

The governor said PG&E was to blame for poor management and should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weatherproof.

"It's decisions that were not made that is leading to this moment in PG&E history," Newsom said. "This is not from my perspective a climate change story so much as it is a story of greed and mismanagement over the course of decades."

Southern California dangers

The fire danger spread to Southern California on Thursday as raging winds moved down the state. Southern California Edison shut off electricity to about 12,000 people just outside Los Angeles, with wider blackouts possible.

A blaze ripped through a mobile home park in Calimesa, a city about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, destroying dozens of residences. The fire was started when trash being hauled caught fire and the driver dumped the load aside a road, according to Riverside County officials.

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