Surviving off the grid
Days without natural gas have spelled pain in the pocketbooks for Ashland businesses affected by a widespread outage that began Tuesday.
Francesca Fericano, owner of Little Shop of Bagels, said she called in extra staff early Wednesday to prepare bagels after she could no longer use her industrial-sized kettle heated by natural gas. Rather than cooking dozens of bagels with each batch, her employees had to boil four at a time in a pot heated by a hot plate. Then they had to bake them in a convection toaster oven instead of the big gas oven.
“We did it,” Fericano said. “I didn’t want to be closed.”
Still, she had to cancel all her wholesale orders for restaurants and coffee shops.
Little Shop of Bagels was one of nearly 4,800 customers affected by the outage that occurred during routine valve maintenance. Crews received a low-pressure alert early Tuesday morning, said Brian Taylor, gas operations manager for the Medford area. The outage stretched from the Ashland airport to downtown.
“We were able to respond to that quickly, but we felt that the best decision at that point with the lower pressure was to go ahead and shut off the system and bring it back on safely,” Taylor said.
Avista Utilities said it would restore service to all those customers by the end of Friday.
“We understand the inconvenience, we appreciate (customers’) patience and ... we will continue to share (information) as we have it,” said Casey Fielder, spokeswoman for Avista. She said the company was still investigating the cause of the outage.
Once the flow restriction was fixed, crews turned to shutting off natural gas meters before relighting pilot lights at all the affected properties. The workers include 10 support personnel from Portland-based Northwest Natural, who were mustered via a mutual aid agreement between the utility companies. Crews are working until 11 p.m. each night and beginning again at 8 a.m. the next morning.
The company has advised residents not to attempt to restore their natural gas service themselves for safety reasons.
At around 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Taylor said that about 2,800 Avista customers mostly in the downtown area had had their gas service at the meter shut off, with crews now working to relight. Others, though, still had not been visited yet by an Avista employee.
“The process is a little time-consuming in natural gas,” Taylor said. “It’s a little bit different from other utilities.”
Avista prioritizes restoring gas to facilities such as hospitals and healthcare centers, as well as schools. The company published an estimated relight map showing which zones get priority for service. You can find the map at https://bit.ly/2U0pd1g.
The outage closed Blue Toba, owned by Birong Hutabarat, for part of Tuesday and all of Wednesday. Other restaurants in southwest Ashland were also shuttered.
Some business owners, like Fericano, found ways to fight through the outage.
Gary Allen, who co-owns Oak Tree Northwest Bar and Grill, closed the restaurant side and reduced his menu at the bar, which is staying open, to just 10 items.
The advent of March Madness Thursday gives the partial closure a particular sting, he said.
“I would like to have a full-service kitchen behind my bar to serve people to watch one of the biggest sporting events of the year,” he said.
Allen estimated a half to two-thirds cut to sales every day that the outage lingers.
Fielder said that customers can file claims with the company for losses due to an outage by calling 1-800-227-9187 or by visiting www.myavista.com/about-us-contact-us/claims-inquiry. Each claim is reviewed individually, she said.
Allen said that overall, he hoped for clearer information about the outage and how long it would last.
“We would love to have better communication,” he said. “I mean the first real message we got was a city press release, and I saw that on Twitter. So some sort of communication would be nice, just so we have an idea of actually what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, Fericano has 2,500 bagels languishing in her walk-in freezer, rising with time. She said she might have to throw them out Thursday.
“My fingers are crossed,” she said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at email@example.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.