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Frustrations boil as crews work

Crews with Avista Utilities are slowly restoring natural gas service to customers in Ashland, though some people will need to wait until the weekend for workers to fully reverse an outage that began Tuesday morning.

“We’re in the process of people going to each meter, turning the gas meter on and checking each individual appliance,” said Brian Taylor, manager of gas operations in Medford.

A Thursday afternoon press release from the utility company said an Avista crew performing routine and required maintenance work left a valve in a partially closed position.

The problem caused a drop in pressure that impacted customers. Taylor said the problem occurred somewhere in northeast Ashland.

The company said it is still investigating all factors involved with the valve being closed.

Avista determined that 4,800 customers downstream of the valve experienced low pressure, which “does not, in and of itself, present an imminent safety concern,” the Avista release said.

Taylor said that shutting off service to all downstream customers — which the company did next — is “industry practice.”

“Once we realized we had a pressure problem to the extent that we could have individual outages, we made the determination to shut off the entire system,” Taylor said.

All gas was shut off by the end Wednesday, Taylor said, and since then Avista crews have came from as far away as Sandpoint, Idaho — assisted by another Portland utility company — and have been relighting pilot lights.

The city of Ashland has mostly played the role of messenger.

“We’re not an active participant in rectifying the problem or restoring service,” said Adam Hanks, assistant to the city manager. “Our practical role is to assist in communicating out to the community what’s going on, as much as we know.”

Hanks described Avista as “very responsive” in the wake of the outage, and he praised the company for creating an Ashland-specific web page for information on the outage.

“Everybody always wants to know immediately what caused it, how long are we going to be out,” he said. “Those aren’t often known immediately. I think Avista’s been a very good working partner with the city in getting that information out as quickly as they had it.”

But some Ashland residents said restoration of their service was behind schedule Thursday. The utility company published a map of the outage Wednesday, with three zones, and outlined priorities for the relight with an end-of-day Friday deadline. But Avista added a fourth zone late Thursday for customers who would need to wait until Saturday to have their natural gas services restored.

Greg Chiodo, who lives in Zone One on Terrace Street, said at 4:30 p.m. Thursday that his natural gas service had not been restored.

Addresses in Zone One had been scheduled for relight by noon Thursday, according to Avista. The company’s website said that “zone boundaries are approximate and restoration time frames are subject to change.”

Chiodo said he had driven around other neighborhoods in Zone One and saw no sign of restoration crews, though vehicles the workers are using are not always distinguishable.

“I had kind of expected it to be boiling with staff restoring the service, but we can’t find anyone,” he said.

Chiodo expressed doubt that the company will finish restoring service to customers by the end of Friday.

“They know they can’t meet the schedule, or else somebody is wildly optimistic,” he said.

Avista’s latest release Thursday said that 14 more personnel had joined the relighting efforts, bringing to 49 the number of people focused on restoring service.

The company mentioned several ways customers can help expedite the relighting process, including kenneling or putting away dogs and leaving gates unlocked. An adult needs to be present when crews show up to reignite pilot lights. If no one answers, the company has said it will leave a note with a number to call for crews to come back.

Chiodo said he and his wife had not received a note. He had not called Avista to follow up.

Avista did not provide updated numbers on how many customers have had their gas restored, but people shared their experiences on social media, including Facebook groups such as Ashland Peeps.

Avista has warned customers not to try and relight pilot lights on their own, but Chiodo said he planned to do just that.

“It’ll be on by 6 p.m., one way or another,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

A Thursday afternoon press release from the utility company said an Avista crew performing routine and required maintenance work left a valve in a partially closed position.