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PG&E’s Auburn canal fence now up to save lives after rash of deaths

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Pacific Gas & Electric safety measures are now in place along Auburn’s deadly Wise Canal. The 3-mile section of the canal has been fenced on the public trail side from Rock Creek Reservoir to the Wise Forebay near Mount Vernon Road. Installation of the 6-foot-high fence followed the discovery of the bodies of five men in the canal over a 16-month period ending last May. Brian Swanson, PG&E spokesman, said installing the fence and stringing four floated grab cables across the waterway provided an extra level of public safety the company decided to institute in response to mounting concerns. “It’s all about public safety,” Swanson said. “We’ve also had a public education effort for people to ‘Stay Out/Stay Alive.” The canal, which meanders through North Auburn and Auburn – and is accessible in many areas via a maintenance trail used by PG&E – is currently shut down for water flows as the corporation does its annual maintenance work. It will again be flowing at regular levels for this time of year in about a week, Swanson said. Reaction to the fencing has been mixed. Lance McCray, a 35-year Auburn resident, said he didn’t see the point of fencing the canal off when other waterways are not. McCray said he heard about the deaths of the men but hasn’t personally been concerned about walking along the public pathway near his home. But over the past three decades-plus, McCray said he’s only heard of a deer falling in – before the recent cluster of deaths. “They’d better go and fence the American River off,” McCray said. “Why isn’t it fenced?” Interviewed after finishing a walk on the canal trail with his dog, Jake, Auburn’s Bill Kreger said he questions why fencing was erected on only one side of the canal when he can clearly see there would be access on some areas of the other, less-traveled side. “If someone wants to get in there, they can go to the other side,” Kreger said. “But it looks as if they’re covering their (bases) by putting up a fence.” Sharon Vintze works with What Would Jesus Do?, a group that aids the homeless throughout the Auburn area. “It’s good, I’m sure,” Vintze said. “It’s protecting their assets and saving some lives.” A Placer County sheriff’s investigation on the five deaths didn’t go so far as to rule out foul play but did describe a common theme of substance abuse in the five deaths. It was backed by autopsy results on the five bodies that showed evidence of very high levels of drugs or alcohol in the victims. Two of the five victims were known to be homeless and Vintze said she was not suspicious after learning of their deaths. “They walked the canals, they did have addictions and it was late at night,” she said. Vintze added that homeless camps were moved out of one area this past month where the fence was put up – on property zoned for a Wal-Mart or Costco. “About 15 or 20 of them scattered and ended up going somewhere else because they were no longer welcome,” Vintze said.