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HELCO employees helping restore infrastructure in fire-ravaged NorCal

Six workers from Hawaii Electric Light Co. are working to repair electrical infrastructure in wildfire-ravaged regions of Northern California.

In late November, 30 employees of the state’s electric companies were dispatched to assist the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in restoring electrical capacity in areas impacted by November’s historic Camp Fire. Hawaiian Electric on Oahu dispatched three teams of five, while HELCO and Maui Electric each sent one team.

Specifically, the crews will restore infrastructure in Butte County, a county in the center of Northern California where the Camp Fire began Nov. 8. By the time the fire was controlled by the end of the month, it had largely destroyed multiple communities within the county, killed at least 85 people, displaced 50,000 people, spread over 200,000 acres and potentially caused up to $19 billion in damage.

The three companies are part of the Western Region Mutual Assistance Group, which calls upon member companies to supply aid during and following disasters. However, this is the first time Hawaii teams have been called upon to address a mainland disaster.

Pat O’Toole, operations superintendent for Hawaiian Electric, said he is unsure how many workers have been brought in through mutual aid, but added that he has seen workers from Arizona, Texas and even companies as far away as Florida Power and Light.

Pacific Gas and Electric is reimbursing all involved utility companies for travel and labor expenses. The Hawaii crews are working 16-hour shifts.

HELCO lineman Ekolu Jensen said his team — as well as the rest of the Hawaii delegation — is primarily focused on a small portion of the town of Paradise, which was leveled by the wildfire.

“It really saddens me to see this kind of devastation,” Jensen said. “I can only imagine the sorts of emotions the people here are going through.”

Jensen said his team is doing similar work to what HELCO did in the wake of Tropical Storm Iselle in 2014: erecting poles, power lines and transformers. Apart from the different climate in California, Jensen said the work is functionally identical to back home.

“What we’re doing is just a small part of what the community here will need to rebuild,” O’Toole said. Paradise residents were recently allowed to return to the area, he continued, and will be “in the mode of rebuilding” for a long time.

The Hawaii crews will continue to work in the area until Dec. 16, after which they will return home.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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