SFPUC Disaster Response Team Home from Paradise — and Many More Lining Up for Next Time

“There are no curbs in Paradise.”

That was just one setback for the City crew used to zeroing in right away on water meters they had come to work on, said Rich Gonzales. Gonzales led the second team of SFPUC plumbers to the burnt-out foothill town the week of June 10 on mutual aid to the Paradise Irrigation District (PID).  In fact, the meters turned out to be tucked deep into the ground behind distant barns or almost anywhere else on the spread-out rural parcels.

“It was crazy looking for a meter that we’d find half way down the road,” Gonzales said.

SFPUC plumber Sal Castro (center) works on a Paradise water meter as a PID technician (left) and local resident look on.

The SFPUC plumbers were charged with hauling out the meters, installing a flushing apparatus on each, then flushing the line to rid it of as many contaminants as possible, and taking water samples. Two SFPUC water quality technicians followed, collecting hundreds of samples more from the small service lines to each parcel, the main line, and some fire hydrants. The samples are being tested now for contaminants at various certified laboratories in the area (no one lab would be able to handle the entire  load).

Water quality technician Curtis Hayden takes a sample from a burnt fire hydrant.

Curtis Hayden had never seen anything like it. 

The water quality technician came to the SFPUC recently from the East Bay Municipal Water District with five years of emergency contaminant response under his belt.  Still, the incidents of broken reservoir gates, trespassers swimming in the drinking water supply, and other red flags were no preparation for seeing the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled the area last November. 

“A whole city was razed,” he said.  “There are cars everywhere with bumpers, tires and glass melted away—even in the PID yard. And everyone had a wild escape story.”

SFPUC crews encountered burnt out vehicles everywhere.

Many of the PID workers had lost their homes too, Hayden’s fellow technician Bryan Hernandez said.  “But they’re still coming into work every day. Everyone in town is doing his bit to get Paradise up and running again, and they know it’s going to be a long process.”

A one-time Paradise home, with Butte Creek Canyon beyond.

The goal for now is to get an overview of the Paradise water system generally, with the facts for FEMA on how much contamination there is, and what exactly needs to be done to restore the supply to drinking water standards.  Currently the remaining residents can use their tap water to take short lukewarm showers or irrigate the yard, but uses like drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth are out of the question.

The SFPUC plumbers more than doubled the small overtaxed PID work force. It was scorching weather by the City’s standards, technician Hernandez said, “and our plumbers were hunched over all day in tight, confined spaces. They were amazing.”  Others thought so too.

On the City team’s last day, Paradise people from everywhere came over to hug them good bye. Every team member had volunteered for the assignment; another deployment will be going up later in the summer, says Gonzales.  “And more guys want to go next time!”