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Sonoma, Napa fires wreak havoc with gas, electricity, cellphone and internet service

In addition to destroying at least 2,000 structures, the wildfires ravaging Sonoma and Napa counties have caused significant damage to critical infrastructure in the region, causing customers to lose the modern utility services upon which they depend.

Electricity, gas, cellular telephone, internet and water service have all suffered varying degrees of damage or disruptions, with little visibility about when they will be restored.

Hundreds of power poles and the lines and transformers they carried have exploded like matchsticks. Gas lines have ruptured. Cellphone and internet networks have been compromised, making service spotty at best and non-existent at worst. And in some areas residents are not even able to drink their water without boiling it.

“It’s pretty unprecedented, but it’s too early to tell right now,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

Approximately 50,000 customers remained without power Tuesday in Sonoma County, unchanged from Monday. Most are in Santa Rosa.

Meanwhile about 40,000 customers were without gas in Sonoma and Napa counties. In both cases, the reason for the outages was a combination of precautionary measures by PG&EPacific Gas & Electric and fire damage to power lines, Contreras said.

Mendocino and Lake counties had about 5,100 people without power, and Mendocino had about 4,000 without gas service.

In many cases, the utility powered down electrical lines and shut off gas service to neighborhoods at the request of fire officials, while in others, service was simply knocked out by the fast-moving fire, Contreras said. Crews have been allowed into some neighborhoods to assess damage, but it’s too soon to say when power will be restored to anyone, she said.

“Our crews will be working 24/7 to support first responders and our customers,” Contreras said. “In the coming days, we plan to deploy approximately 200 PG&E crews, which is nearly 800 crew members from across our service area to support the response.”

Gas crews from Southern California are joining PG&E in the effort, she said.

Telecommunications infrastructure wrecked by wildfires has affected both cellphone, landline and internet service. Roughly 77 cellphone sites and key communications hubs have been destroyed or damaged in Northern California fires, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services.

Comcast, Verizon and other service providers won’t be able to assess the damage to their infrastructure until they get into areas destroyed by fires, but many areas are still closed to utility crews.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Jenny Gendron, spokeswoman for Comcast. “We’re waiting for local authorities to give us access. We’re working in tandem with PG&E to get to downed lines and assess the damage.”

Currently there are more than 30,000 Comcast customers without telephone, cable and internet service in Sonoma County, Gendron said, and restoration is dependent on PG&E replacing downed utility poles. Comcast crews are trying to determine if fiber-optic lines can be rehung when the poles are replaced or if new cables are needed. The fire burned so hot in some areas that the core of the fiber-optic cables turned into glass, she said.

An AT&T representative refused to answer questions on service disruptions caused by the fire, but said the company has deployed numerous mobile cell sites to fire-ravaged areas.

Verizon customers are also facing service interruptions in some areas because of a loss of electricity to cell towers and fire damage, said spokeswoman Heidi Flato. The fires have destroyed cell sites and damaged fiber-optic cables leased from AT&T and Comcast, Flato said. Companies are working collaboratively to restore service.

Safety issues have kept Verizon crews from accessing some damaged cell sites in the county, but four were brought back online Tuesday in Santa Rosa, Flato said. While there’s no timeline for complete service restoration, “things are improving,” Flato said.

Santa Rosa’s water system has also been impacted by the fires. The city advised Fountaingrove-area residents to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking.

The boil order applies to residents east of Mendocino Avenue, north of Chanate Road, west of Fountaingrove Parkway and south of Mark West Springs Road. It also applies to anyone experiencing little or no water pressure. California American Water had previously advised residents of the Larkfield area, where the company supplies some 2,400 homes and businesses, not to drink tap water for the foreseeable future.

Tap water in other areas of the county is safe to drink until further notice.

The system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure, Santa Rosa water engineer Emma Walton said. When water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices — particularly in the higher elevations of the system — may not work property, she said.

To disinfect tap water, it should be boiled for 1 minute before using. If unable to boil water, residents can add 1/8 teaspoon of bleach per gallon of clear water or 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of cloudy water, the city advised. Mix thoroughly and then allow to stand for 30 minutes before using. There will be a chlorine-like taste and odor, which indicates the water is adequately disinfected.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat. You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Christi Warren also contributed to this report.