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B.C. electrical crews head to northern California to help fight devastating wildfires

Click to play video: 'B.C. power company helping California fire recovery' B.C. power company helping California fire recovery
A B.C company is helping restore California's power grid, which has been devastated by wildfires. Ted Chernecki reports – Oct 30, 2019

A crew of 80 B.C. electrical technicians, mechanics and safety workers has arrived in northern California to help fight the wildfires that continue to destroy parts of the state.

Crews from Coquitlam-based Rokstad Power set out Tuesday, a day after company owner and CEO Aaron Rokstad says his company was contacted by officials in California asking for help.

“They don’t have the resources to be able to deal with responding, so they’ve reached out to outside contractors outside the area,” he said. “Because we have contracts down there and existing operations, they decided to pull us in.

Click to play video: 'Dangerous Santa Ana and Diablo winds drive California wildfires' Dangerous Santa Ana and Diablo winds drive California wildfires
Dangerous Santa Ana and Diablo winds drive California wildfires – Oct 30, 2019

“The phone call was pretty frantic,” he added. “They realize they have an issue.”

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Forecasters in the U.S. say California faces an “extremely critical risk” of further wildfires as winds whip up blazes that have destroyed more than 200 homes and buildings north of Vallejo, where the B.C. crews are heading.

READ MORE: Customers frustrated with utility as mass power outages in California continue

The crews, combined with roughly 50 people from the company’s American offices, will likely spend weeks spreading out across Sonoma County.

California power provider PG&E has been shutting off electricity for millions of customers in order to reduce the risk of fires sparked by downed wires. Wednesday saw the third such blackout in a week, affecting nearly 1 million residents in the state’s north.

Rokstad says his crews’ duties in Vallejo will include rebuilding fire-damaged power lines and other infrastructure in what could be ’round-the-clock shifts of dangerous work.

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How California needs to adapt to a new reality of wildfires – Oct 28, 2019
“We’re relying on [PG&E] to be ahead of us and assess the situation, hopefully not sending us into any danger,” he said.
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“We have sent some of our safety personnel down there to support that team, and we just have to make sure we’re doing the right thing at all times.”

Rokstad says he expects power for some northern California residents could be out for weeks.

READ MORE: Frustration mounts as 900,000 Californians remain without power over wildfire threat

The company has responded to situations south of the border before, helping with repairs and restoration operations after Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. east coast in 2012.

But while that work dealt with the aftermath of a disaster, Rokstad is aware that this time his crews are entering an active — and dangerous — situation.

“We feel like we’re going in right in the heart of the action,” he said. “So this will be interesting for us.”

Click to play video: 'California battles several major wildfires' California battles several major wildfires
California battles several major wildfires – Oct 28, 2019

As many as 200,000 people have been displaced in northern California and about one million people across the state are still without power from a blackout over the weekend.

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No deaths have been reported from the fires, but toppled trees claimed three lives.

Rokstad says his crews, who are believed to be the only Canadians asked to help, were delayed by roughly six hours at the border trying to get their trucks and equipment into the U.S.

READ MORE: Lebron James, Arnold Schwarzenegger among thousands fleeing California wildfire

They’ll be joined by other companies from surrounding states aiding in the efforts after California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency.

While he’s focused on ensuring his crews are safe while working in harm’s way, Rokstad says getting the opportunity to help is valuable.

“It feels good to go down south of the border, help our brothers and sisters in need there,” he said. “It’s great to make the area safe and get everything cleaned up, but people need power.”

— With files from the Associated Press

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