Sunset after 2015 fire in Middletown, CA

By Louis Martin, RCAC staff writer

After a community lifts fire evacuation orders and it is safe to return home, the real work begins. When a disaster affects a water system, it could be weeks or months before potable water is widely available. The water system’s long to-do list includes public relations, engineering, finances and even relocating meters.

RCAC recently spoke to water operators, accountants and system administrators from the Paradise Irrigation District (PID) in California. Paradise endured a catastrophic wildfire in 2018, which destroyed significant parts of the town’s infrastructure. It was the world’s most expensive natural disaster at the time with an estimated $16.5 billion in losses. The fire was also California’s deadliest fire on record with 86 fatalities.1

Repairing the town’s water system was a critical first step before residents could return. PID immediately set about recovering. The task list was daunting. Beyond the immediate need for potable water, PID faced what could be a decades-long process to complete recovery. Most of PID’s staff had never worked with FEMA, certainly not to the extent that they were about to.

Three years into the recovery process, the PID team spoke on the phone with comradery, sometimes finishing one another’s sentences or using inside jokes. They’re reluctant to call themselves experts, but it’s clear they have a level of expertise uncommon to small systems. They spoke at length about the hypothetical, “if we had to do it all over again” question. They were candid about surprises and mistakes, commenting that there was little if any playbook for a recovery of this scale at the time. Now, their lessons learned can be the first drafts of that playbook, which will save other water systems time, resources and even lives.

In addition to PID staff, we spoke to RCAC Rural Development Specialist John Hamner, who also managed a water system that was destroyed in a wildfire. Hamner is very active in disaster preparedness for Northern California small water systems.

(Some of these quotes are edited for clarity and conciseness.)

Ask for help and document everything.

“In California, you need to notify Cal Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) that short-term and long-term assistance will be needed [other states have similar offices]. Cal OES has agreements with multiple larger utilities to assist with doing what is necessary to get the system back online (short-term), and it is the FEMA go between that will provide funding for system replacement (long-term).

Start documenting everything at the end of each day. Document hours staff and/or volunteers spent, work and personal vehicle mileage, how long generators were used, and keep receipts for all purchases. FEMA may not reimburse you for anything that has not been carefully documented.”

John Hamner, former General Manager, Callayomi County Water District

Don’t be afraid to spend money.

“We thought we were going to have to cut payroll to stay viable. Looking back, it is one of the biggest mistakes we made. We laid off key staff members who were near retirement age. But in doing so, we lost years of institutional knowledge. In Paradise, our fire chief had years of experience with Cal OES. He understood that when you’re in emergency mode, a lot of your spending is reimbursable. They were out hiring people right off the bat. They didn’t slow down their spending. They actually sped up. I think in a lot of ways that would have helped us.”

Bill Taylor, Treatment Plan Superintendent, Paradise Irrigation District

Reimbursement can take time.

“I had no idea the level of detail FEMA was going into for its due processes. FEMA literally goes line by line and validates every single hour and expense. It’s important that you have everything documented because it’s a lengthy process for reimbursement. After you incur costs, track them accurately and put them in a format where FEMA can validate those costs. Our first year of expenses didn’t get reimbursed until two years later.”

Ross Gilb, Finance Manager, Paradise Irrigation District

Invest in GIS systems.

“We’re still dealing with this issue. All our landmarks are gone. We used to have meter instructions that said, ‘10 meters from this telephone pole or that tree.’ When those things are gone, you’re lost. We replaced most of our meter boxes with plastic ones a few years ago. Those plastic boxes melted and were black and charred just like everything else. Every meter was an absolute struggle to find. If you can have a good GIS system that has accurate GPS locations of all the sites, it will save you so much valuable time. Years ago, we would manually mark the meters with white hash marks on the side of the road. We stopped doing that when we switched to an automated meter reading system, but it would have been a thousand times easier to find them if we hadn’t.”

Mickey Rich, Information Systems Manager, Paradise Irrigation District

Consider hiring outside your community.

“You need to have somebody that isn’t tied directly to the community. Almost everyone in our system was also dealing with family being evacuated. It’s one of those things you really don’t consider until after the fact. If you need people to help work and put your system back together, they need to have a place for their family and they need to know their family is okay. We had people go as far as Florida after the fire. They weren’t able to help us because that was the only place they had to stay.”

Bill Taylor, Treatment Plan Superintendent, Paradise Irrigation District

Relationships will matter.

“Make sure you have your mutual aid agreements in place before you need them. Get your support system now whether for your personnel or your system. Relationships matter. Just one example is something like your phone or your communication systems. They will have account managers. Well, they change all the time. Make sure you know who these people are and maintain these relationships.

Another example is communication. To remain transparent and communicate with our community consistently, we invested in a water quality map. We put that online for insurance companies, families and people wanting to come to the area. It’s been huge for maintaining our relationship with the public and building trust.”

Mickey Rich, Information Systems Manager, Paradise Irrigation District

Have a plan for public updates.

“Have a plan in place to notify the users that the water being provided is not guaranteed safe. This will require either a boil water notice, a do not drink notice or a do not use notice depending on the evaluation. If volunteers are used, document it.”

John Hamner, former General Manager, Callayomi County Water District

Wildfire Awareness Month

May is Wildfire Awareness Month. Visit to read what homeowners and system operators can do to prepare for seasonal wildfires. Make an emergency plan, review important documents, gather supplies and know your evacuation plan. You can also download the FEMA app and receive real-time alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five locations nationwide.

RCAC provides free, technical trainings to water system administrators on emergency response planning.

To find a training list, go to: 

1 Jan. 8, 2019–