Photo: The crew from Helix and Padre Dam with Paradise Irrigation District employees. The banner is signed by Helix and Padre Dam board members and employees.

Helix Water District sent four operations employees to Paradise, the northern California town leveled by the Camp Fire in November 2018, to help restore the community’s water distribution system.

They left Helix’s operations center at 3:30 a.m. on August 18, with two employees from neighboring Padre Dam Municipal Water District, and worked Monday through Friday in Paradise.

“If you closed your eyes, all you heard were friendly people. Everyone in town was very positive,” said Helix Utility Crew Supervisor Dan Baker. “But, when you looked around, there were trucks and workers everywhere — rebuilding.”

At the end of July, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) reported that they had removed 75 percent of the structural debris from the Camp Fire in Paradise and Butte County, including 1.6 million tons of ash and debris, over 518,000 tons of concrete, 37,000 tons of metal and over 446,000 tons of contaminated soil.

On August 6, Paradise residents gathered to hear the progress reports from all of the local and state agencies involved in rebuilding the community. The California Office of Emergency Services is developing a plan to remove the hazardous trees still standing, the town is opening a resource center to streamline the permitting process for residents rebuilding their homes, and the school district is making sure the new school year begins on schedule.

Top: Fire damage in Paradise, California. Below: Helix employees John Wilson, Eric Hughes, Dan Baker and Bryan Watte, and Padre Dam workers Jesse Knowles and Austin Darley.

But a safe water supply is still an issue. The water distribution system was contaminated during the fire with Benzene, a known carcinogen. Fire officials believe that the system depressurized during the fire and sucked in a toxic mix of gases from burning homes. This also happened in Santa Rosa during the Tubbs Fire in 2017.

Paradise Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Phillips reported to residents on August 6 that the district lifted water advisories on 133 standing homes and is testing and restoring water quality at 30-50 standing homes each week.

When Helix offered mutual aid assistance through the Office of Emergency Services, Phillips said they had cleared the gases from their water mains, but could use help testing and restoring water quality in customer service lines — the small pipe that connects a home to the water main. Helix sent Baker and Bryan Watte from its meters and valves section and John Wilson and Eric Hughes from its construction section to provide that help.

From 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, the four went from one water meter to the next, collecting a water sample at each standing home and installing a highline to deliver safe water to the home until the sample was tested and the customer service line approved for use. They also assisted with the installation of backflow prevention assemblies to prevent contamination from the ongoing construction throughout the community. Phillips reported to residents on August 6 that PID had installed 275 backflow prevention assemblies to date, and had 400 more to install.

Monday evening, after their first day in Paradise, Baker emailed Helix Operations Director Kevin Miller that, “There’s a lot of work up here but the town is healing. I think I speak for all four of us when I say I’m proud to be a part of this.”

In fact, Baker was speaking for everyone at Helix. Field Supervisor Paul LaFalce said, “We lost four valuable people here at Helix for a week, but everyone was so supportive of what was happening in Paradise that they covered for them and made up the difference. It was good to see.”

The four took with them to Paradise a “California Strong. Paradise Strong.” banner signed by board members and district employees at both Helix and Padre Dam. Helix engineer Jeff McMaster emailed, “Sending a crew to help, the banner, this definitely reinforces the pride in working here.”

Helix Water District provides water treatment for much of San Diego’s east county suburbs and water distribution for the 276,000 people in the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon, the Spring Valley community and unincorporated areas of the county.