Paradise recovery slows as contamination leaves residents, businesses without critical services
There are few things in life as essential as clean water. Just try opening a restaurant without it.
Lok Keobouasom has been attempting that feat, and this week he was working to clear the final hurdle: getting the county Health Department’s green light to open his doors.
“It’s a little bit of a long process,” he said by phone from his eatery, Sophia’s Authentic Thai Cuisine, on the Skyway in Paradise. With no potable water available via tap, he purchased a large storage tank with a compressor pump that will feed clean, drinkable water into the restaurant. He’ll have to purchase water to fill it.
Keobouasom isn’t complaining about the work. His restaurant survived the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearly 90 percent of the town around it. By some miracle, his house also is still standing; he’s living there now with his wife and their 10-year-old twin daughters. He admits, however, that “it’s kind of lonely.” He hopes Sophia’s open sign will help bring more people back.
Others share that hope. In fact, the Skyway business corridor, which includes Sophia’s, is the top priority for the Paradise Irrigation District (PID), which provides water to the town. After recent test results came back positive for the chemical compound benzene, which is known to cause cancer, the PID issued a warning recommending customers not drink water from the tap—or use it for brushing teeth, making ice or preparing food. The district is now performing more extensive tests to determine the magnitude of the problem, starting with the Skyway.
It could take a significant amount of time to solve, as the process of testing, isolating contaminated areas and then removing the contamination along 170 miles of pipe is complicated, as well as costly. The lack of precedence, aside from Santa Rosa—whose water system is considerably different from Paradise’s—could present unforeseen obstacles. But without potable water, some businesses are installing expensive equipment to operate, while others postpone reopening. Residents face similar challenges, slowing the recovery process.
“If those tests [along the Skyway] come back clear, all of our effort will go into the Skyway,” Kevin Phillips, interim PID manager, told the CN&R last week. “Our No. 1 priority is the Skyway business corridor, to make sure those businesses can come back up and reopen. We’re working extremely hard to get that back open.”
Thus far, the majority of businesses that have returned to the Ridge can get by without running water—they’re auto shops, retail stores and banks, to name a few. Food service is understandably different, as workers must adhere to sanitation guidelines. Last week, Starbucks on the Skyway installed a tank and pump system similar to the one at Sophia’s. Dutch Bros. has announced its plans to reopen soon. Others, like Celestino’s, are in wait-and-see mode, with potable water a major factor.
For Keobouasom, it wasn’t even a question.
“I’ve lived here for 14 years—I don’t want to abandon the town,” he said. A decade ago, he bought the restaurant from his uncle and has carried on its tradition of serving affordable, authentic Thai dishes in a comfortable, homey environment. He’s eager to get back to it.
“I want to encourage people to come back to town. It doesn’t matter how hard of a process we have to go through—as long as we help each other and support each other, we’ll go on.”
A month after the Tubbs Fire roared through wine country in October 2017, a resident of the Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa returned to her home and, upon turning on her faucet, smelled a strange odor. She called her water company, which conducted tests that detected an elevated level of benzene, a known carcinogen most commonly found in gasoline, cigarette smoke and plastics.
Further tests found varying levels of the chemical in the water system, primarily in the Fountaingrove area. The maximum amount of benzene allowed in California drinking water, per State Water Resources Control Board regulations, is 1 part per billion; some areas tested as high as 918 ppb. Officials issued a water advisory recommending anyone living in one of the 13 homes left standing in Fountaingrove after the fire to stop using tap water for drinking, cooking, even bathing. That advisory was finally lifted 11 months later.
Santa Rosa was a unique case—benzene had never been found in the water after a wildfire before. Testing underwent several phases as the effort to determine the cause of the benzene eluded officials. It’s now believed that when the fire came through, the intense heat melted plastic meter boxes as well as plastic piping, leaching benzene into the water system.
The same may have happened in Paradise. Depressurization during the fire also could have caused contamination.
“Ninety percent of our service connections burned, and water was flowing through their pipes uncontrolled,” Phillips said. “Based on that, our system was not able to keep up with the water demand—so it depressurized, it became like a vacuum. In that vacuum, there could have been particulates, ash … or any kind of contaminant sucked back into the system.”
PID shut most of the system down as soon as personnel were able, leaving just a core along the Skyway active so firefighters could access hydrants to fight spot fires. Then workers went property to property and shut off water at each meter, including those serving homes or businesses that were still standing.
After checking the status of the district’s four holding tanks throughout town, one of which was destroyed, PID began pumping water back into the transmission lines. As of last week, Phillips said, they were about 60 percent to 70 percent finished reconnecting service to standing structures.
“Through this process, we’ve been talking with Santa Rosa,” Phillips said. “The big difference between Santa Rosa and us is 10 percent of their district burnt; we had 90 percent burn.”
PID initially issued a boil water advisory, while testing began. That was elevated to a bottled-water-only directive after benzene was discovered earlier this month. Prolonged exposure to more than 1 ppb of the chemical can affect the body’s red blood cells and lead to leukemia, according to the water board. While ingestion causes the most harm, benzene also can enter the body through the skin. Steam from heating water with benzene in it can get into the air and is highly flammable.
Customers of the Del Oro Water Co., which serves Magalia and its environs, have been told their water is safe to drink after preliminary testing came back negative for benzene. They should alert officials of any strange smells—benzene has a sweet, gasoline-like odor—as more in-depth testing is currently underway.
Phillips has worked for PID for 12 years, and took over Jan. 1 as interim manager after the departure of Ed Fortner, who had held the position since being hired in July. He’s comfortable in the role, despite the overwhelming amount of work ahead—he’d held it for the 18 months prior to Fortner’s hiring.
“I’m dedicated to this district and this community,” he said during an interview at PID’s headquarters off Clark Road.
Fortner left of his own volition, Phillips said, and there are no hard feelings. A transplant from Kentucky, he was still learning the ropes at PID when the Camp Fire hit, destroying his family’s home. The enormity of the situation was understandably overwhelming, Phillips said.
Phillips knows he’s lucky; his house, in Durham, stands. The same cannot be said of 30 of the 38 people employed by the PID on Nov. 8. Since then, the staff has dwindled to 28. With all of the personal time those 28 have needed to get through the recovery process, “we’re operating with between 10 and 14 employees each day.”
That said, the staff has been incredibly resilient. They watched as thousands of PG&E workers flooded the hill to tackle the monumental task of putting in new power lines and poles.
“And here we are, 28 employees, and what we’re dealing with is every bit, if not more, damaged,” Phillips said. The California Water Service Co. has pitched in, providing 25 workers to assist the PID. South Feather Water and Power, out of Oroville, likewise has dedicated seven employees to the effort, plus equipment.
Phillips pointed to the map of the utility district that was hanging on the wall beside him. Red dots represented structures serviced by PID that burned; black dots indicated those that survived. Jim Ladrini, assistant field superintendent for the district, pointed out the locations of its storage tanks and transmission lines. In all, the water system includes 170 miles of pipe.
The water treatment facility, located below Magalia Dam, ships clean water south via a gravity-based system. Large transmission lines lead to upper Paradise, where a bladder tank—much like a water bed—held up to 3 million gallons of water. Farther south, along the main thoroughfares, three other tanks, all of them steel, hold additional water.
Of all of PID’s infrastructure, the biggest Camp Fire casualty was that bladder tank. The steel ones survived and are operational.
“That being gone is really critical,” Ladrini said. But right now, less storage capacity is needed, so the district’s main focus is on water quality.
The intricacies of PID’s network of pipes are vast. For one, materials vary—sometimes property to property. The district was formed in 1916, and standards have changed over the years. Some pipes are made of steel, cast iron or asbestos cement. Others, mostly those connected to new construction, are made of PVC. About 10 years ago, the district replaced all meters more than a decade old with new, plastic-encased ones. They learned the hard way that plastic melts. Nearly every meter in town was damaged in the Camp Fire, Phillips said.
Because of the benzene found in Santa Rosa’s water following the Tubbs Fire, the water board’s Division of Drinking Water collected samples from residences in Butte County to see if a pattern emerged. Three came back positive for more than 1 ppb of benzene. One was on lower Pentz Road, one on upper Pentz, and one off of Pinewood Drive in east Paradise. The fact that they were all discovered on the customer side of the meter is worrying, but might not spell complete disaster, Phillips and Ladrini agreed.
“Here’s an analogy: The treatment plant is the heart of the water system,” Phillips said. “We know we’re pushing out good water. It pumps through all these arteries and veins, and finally gets to the capillary at the end. That’s where the benzene is. If we find it in the capillaries, we need to make sure it’s not in the arteries.”
Last week, the PID began the process of testing 54 sites, ranging from businesses to fire hydrants, along the Skyway. First, water is flushed through the system. Twice. Then it is allowed to sit in the pipes undisturbed for 72 hours. While many of the sites chosen are standing structures, none are using PID water at the moment—it was important not to interrupt service to anyone using it, Phillips said.
On Monday (Jan. 28), samples were collected and sent to a lab for testing. Results typically take five days to be returned. While those samples are at the lab, a second phase of testing will begin, in the area above Wagstaff Road. There, they’ll collect about 200 samples.
“Maybe we’ll find that the benzene is just in the service lines and not in the main lines,” Ladrini said. He admits he’s an optimist, but says he’s committed to conducting a thorough check. “I don’t want to tell customers, ‘I think we’re OK.’”
A best-case scenario will reveal no contamination in either test area. Then they can start systematically narrowing the search. With the Skyway as the first priority, if tests come back clear, Ladrini says they’ll likely need to hire an engineer to design a system that will prevent backfill—when a pressure change causes water to reverse course—so as to protect those clean pipes, which branch out to service properties off the main road.
The whole process, just for one area, could take anywhere from one month to several. The ultimate goal is to get services up and running cleanly for every standing structure in Paradise, even the lone house at the end of a burned-out neighborhood. After that’s complete, they’ll shift gears to the properties that are being rebuilt.
If no contamination is found in the PID’s miles of pipes, it is likely confined to service lines—the capillaries, or the parts of pipe that stretch from the meter to the tap. Those sections of pipe are maintained by the customer, Phillips said, and testing there will be the customer’s responsibility.
“I’m looking into private funding options to help folks pay for that testing,” Phillips said. For now, the PID is distributing free bottled water. The board of directors voted to forgo charging customers for service between Nov. 8 and Dec. 31. The first bills will go out in March and will be a flat fee, as meters will have to be replaced.
Some residents have purchased their own water tanks for cooking, drinking and showering. Others are content—for now—to shower elsewhere and use bottled water for other uses. Still others are waiting for all services to be up and running, or until the cleanup is complete.
“I had one customer give me a hug and say, ‘I don’t care if I can’t drink it—all I need to do is flush the toilet,’” Ladrini said. “That function right there becomes one of the most important things in life—it’s one of the simple things we take for granted.”
But that luster could wear off before too long. Residents in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood balked at the city’s estimated timeline of two years to repair its issue, with some refusing to return to their homes or begin rebuilding without potable water.
Chelsea Dwyer shares that stance. She and her husband, Addison, bought their first home in central Paradise in June. Tired of renting and unable to afford a place in Chico, she said, they looked to the Ridge. While repairs are being done to their property—looters had kicked in their front door and firefighters had cut holes in the roof—they are back to renting in Chico.
“The advisory right now is they don’t want us brushing our teeth, they say not to use hot water to shower, not to let our pets drink it, not to cook our food with it,” she said. “We’d have to buy one of those portable storage tanks and pay a company for water. It just seems like a huge hassle.”
While they wanted to move back in the beginning, the Dwyers are reconsidering. The lack of water is a factor in their decision.
“If water isn’t available by the time the repairs are done and our insurance company says it’s liveable, we’re going to fight them; we’re going to say, ‘You have to pay for that portable system,’” she said.
Looking to the future, Phillips said the Camp Fire has taught the PID some valuable lessons. For one, all of the plastic meters and the boxes that contain them—even those that survived—will be removed and replaced with concrete boxes with metal lids. New pipe likely will be steel or some other metal.
New construction, especially in such a mass quantity, will bring its own set of challenges, namely the fact that in 2011 the state passed a law requiring all newly built single-family homes be equipped with sprinklers. It also mandates a water pressure to each home that will require larger service lines be installed.
As far as the contamination and repair to fire-damaged infrastructure, Phillips said he’s working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California Office of Emergency Services to ensure as much of the work is covered by grants and other funding as possible. The district’s financial footing is wobbly at best, as 95 percent of its operating costs are born by ratepayers—and 90 percent of PID’s ratepayers are gone. At least for now.
“We’re trying really hard,” Ladrini said of the PID’s efforts to get everything up and running quickly and safely. “This is new territory.”