Hooking up

Richard Towne builds modular homes for a living. So, while he hadn’t set out to make headlines for being the first person—along with his wife, Kathy—to move into a newly constructed house in the Camp Fire burn scar, it’s not all that surprising.

“It took a lot of hard work—it was a fight to get it to here,” he acknowledged, sitting back in a camping chair under a canopy outfitted with a mister in what’s now his front yard. “But we had tremendous support—everybody was on board.”

The permitting process was the easiest part, he said. He used a private debris-removal company—one he works with regularly on other jobs—and a PG&E employee who lives around the corner greased some wheels to get the power turned on. Del Oro Water Co. came out and conducted a test on the water at the Townes’ meter, and it came back clean. Richard also requested proof that testing had been done along the water main in his Ishi Drive neighborhood—they emailed the test results promptly, he said.

“They said it was all clear, it’s potable,” he said. For his own piece of mind, he said, he had the service line from the meter to the couple’s new home replaced. He also requested Del Oro conduct a test at his kitchen sink, which was done. “It cost $70. They were absolutely cooperative,” he said.

On Monday (July 16), three weeks after the Townes moved in, Paradise issued its first new occupancy permit, to the Sinclaire family. Their road to rebuilding was a little tougher, however, because Paradise Irrigation District’s (PID) guidelines are more stringent. That, and there’s been a do-not-drink warning in place since December, when benzene was first found in Del Oro’s system. (Del Oro has issued no warnings.)

Luckily for the Sinclaires, and others living in Paradise, PID has devised a strategy for removing the warning for properties—whole streets, even. After that has been completed, and the new home builder has replaced the burned-out service line from the meter to the house, there’s an additional step before hooking in to the system: installing a backflow device.

“It’s basically a one-way valve—it lets water in, but won’t let water back out from your property into the main water system,” explained Mickey Rich, information systems manager for PID. The district historically has required them for anyone with a swimming pool or large water storage tank, she said; now, as an added safety precaution following the fire, they’re required for everyone before hooking in to the system.

“The way I’ve always explained it is, you may not want to get a backflow device yourself, but you sure want all your neighbors to have one,” she said.

Having safe, drinkable, shower-able water has been a concern on the Ridge since the fire. When the water systems depressurized due to structures burning, they became filled with all manner of debris. On top of that, the extreme heat melted the plastic piping and water meters. It’s believed that the melted plastic was the source of contamination—primarily benzene, a known carcinogen.

But while both PID and Del Oro have discovered similar contaminants, only PID immediately issued warnings to residents to not drink the water, or even use hot water to shower—when benzene is heated, it becomes a vapor and can be breathed in. Many people in Paradise subsequently installed their own water tanks or filtration systems. Restaurants were handed extra requirements for reopening. In Del Oro’s districts—which encompass the Magalia and Paradise Pines communities—there were no additional requirements.

A Del Oro representative declined to be interviewed for this story.

Over the past couple of months, PID has increased its testing while also beginning to certify certain areas as having potable water. The process is complicated, but the district wants to be thorough, Rich said.

Step one is testing the water main to ensure it is not contaminated. Then, a test is conducted on a service lateral—these are like driveways off of a street, Rich explained. PID tests the portion from the main line to the meter. This is where the majority of the contamination has been found, according to both PID and Bruce Macler, a toxicologist with the state Water Resources Control Board. If contamination is found there, that line will be replaced, Rich said. If not, it’s certified clean.

“For burned lots, because so many of them are contaminated, what PID wants to do is not even do a test [on the service lateral], just replace it with a brand-new shiny service lateral,” Rich said. “What they’re seeing in the main lines is that nearly all of the main lines are meeting guidelines—97 percent meet guidelines. Over half of our main-line mileage has been tested.”

The third step to approval is the most important, she said, and requires a panel of experts assembled by PID to take a look at the individual property. “They actually look at history and location—what do we know about this area? Is there a reason why this would be more at risk [for breaking]? If there is, they won’t approve it.”

The process does take time, Rich said, and will take rebuild permits into consideration. Their abundance of caution is for the customers’ sake, however.

“We’ve been cautious from the very beginning, because these are our families, these are our friends,” Rich said. “Until we are sure, the last thing we want is someone we love, or our neighbor, going home and taking a big old gulp of something that’s going to hurt them.”