For more than a century, the Paradise Irrigation District has been providing water and related services to residents and business in the quaint, mountain town of Paradise, CA – a place that was relatively unknown to most Americans before the Camp Fire leveled the town in early November.
In a matter of hours, the town of Paradise transformed from a hidden gem into a national headline, and the IBEW 1245 members who work for Paradise Irrigation District saw their world turned upside down.
The majority of these members are Paradise residents who lost their homes and all of their worldly belongings in the fire. Just four of the members who live in Paradise have homes that are still standing – but due to the massive amount of damage and chemical exposure, their houses are still uninhabitable as of this writing, and there’s no telling when they might be able to move back in.
But despite the unimaginable loss and devastation that this workgroup has suffered through, nearly all of them have returned to work, doing their part to help repair and restore water service to their tight knit community. Six full-time workers and three part-timers have left the District since the fire; most of them accepted an early retirement offer from the District. But the remaining 18 members who are still with the District have been hard at work – and their first order of business has been identifying and repairing the numerous leaks that the fire left in its wake.
It can be hard to quantify the magnitude of damage that these crews have set out to repair, but it is truly massive. According to one member who works at the water treatment plant, immediately after the fire, when there were few, if any, water customers remaining in the system, the plant was still treating around 2.2 million gallons per day, which is about one-third of the normal production for the average day’s use for the District. Despite the fact that no one was using water, it kept moving due to the extensive amount of leaks within the system.
Detecting and repairing these leaks is an arduous task to say the least, but the members are committed to doing their work so that one day their friends and neighbors may be able to access potable tap water once again.
“The crews are repairing main line leaks with open trench methods, as well as capping service lines that go to lots with no structure, and they are replacing infrastructure to those that are still standing, to restore service,” explained IBEW 1245 Business Rep Dominic McCurtain, who represents the members at Paradise ID.
Detecting and repairing leaks is only one part of the lengthy service restoration process. Once leaks are repaired and pipe segments are able to be commissioned, the District must conduct extensive water-safety testing, which will likely take many months. The testing is necessary due to the potential for benzene and/or bacteria to accumulate in the pipes, and once an individual pipe segment is commissioned, it can take days or weeks for the test results to come back.
Fortunately, the testing that has been conducted so far has shown limited benzene impact to the public water system. The issue of benzene in water supplies only became apparent after the 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, where melted pipes resulted in benzene contamination. Benzene is easily absorbed into plastic and rubber and can absorb into biofilms that line all water pipes. Sometimes the benzene is lightly absorbed and can be eliminated by flushing, but if the benzene is heavily absorbed, then the plastic or rubber gasket pipe segments may need to be replaced. Paradise Irrigation District is continuing to test water samples and will update the public as soon as test results are known.
In the meantime, the District is advising residents to use only bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth, and customers can pick up cases of water from the District main office during specified hours, and can also utilize licensed water haulers and public filling stations in adjacent areas.
Water service is being restored, street by street, and the progress that has been made given the conditions is nothing short of outstanding. As of this writing (Jan. 23) the District website reports that its transmission system is 90% filled, and the distribution system is 50% filled. IBEW 1245 commends the work of its members,* and looks forward to the day when Paradise residents can consume their tap water once again.
–Rebecca Band, IBEW 1245 Communications Director
Dominic McCurtain contributed to this report.
*Regretfully, no IBEW 1245 members at Paradise ID were available for interview at press time.