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In and around the rural northern California town of Paradise, people are asking is it safe to live here. Almost nine months after the deadly Camp Fire, the area is still a disaster recovery zone. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the handful of people who are rebuilding homes and lives there say they're getting contradictory messages about whether the water is even safe.
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COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Turn right, then your destination will be on the left.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Tammy Waller thought she was one of the lucky ones. Her home in Magalia survived California's most destructive wildfire. But her community remains a ghostly skeleton of its former self.
TAMMY WALLER: Now some cleared lots, not cleared lots. And what is that? Burned cars.
SIEGLER: Hazmat crews are still clearing properties. Giant dump trucks continue to haul away toxic debris. And then there's the water. Signs on water fountains at town hall say don't drink. Waller remembers the day she came home.
WALLER: When I first walked in, I went to my kitchen sink and turned on the water. And it was just literally black.
SIEGLER: After the Camp Fire, in some water lines, scientists detected dangerous levels of cancer causing benzenes from burnt plastics. Waller's taps are now running clear. And she's been told it's safe to drink. But less than a half mile away in a neighborhood destroyed by fire, the water isn't considered safe. In this system, the pipes are all connected.
WALLER: It's not a risk I want to take to drink it.
SIEGLER: Fire survivors like Waller are frustrated by the mixed signals from state and local officials. It's not always clear what water is safe, who is at risk and who isn't. Now a big reason for the confusion is that the publicly owned utility, the Paradise Irrigation District, is advising its customers to use bottled water for almost everything - drinking, cooking, brushing your teeth. But the smaller, private Del Oro Water Company says its water going to standing homes like Waller's is safe to drink.
WALLER: The flip-flopping is what puts a lot of uncertainty and I think causes the public more stress. It causes me more stress knowing that one day it's fine, the next, you know, couple of weeks later, oh, oops, it's not.
ANDREW WHELTON: Nobody should encounter these types of decisions following a disaster because it's not their fault that this happened.
SIEGLER: Purdue University's Andrew Whelton is an expert on rebuilding water infrastructure after disasters. He consulted in Paradise after the Camp Fire. He says there hasn't been nearly enough stringent testing to ensure people aren't being exposed to danger. And the state didn't even issue its water safety guidance to homeowners until June.
WHELTON: In absence of any guidance, people are going to have to figure out how to protect themselves. They're going to have to test their own plumbing. They're going to have to find people that know what they're doing because the state clearly does not.
SIEGLER: But the state says Whelton and other academics are being alarmist. At the California Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, I asked toxicologist Bruce Macler whether he could say with certainty that the water in the Paradise area is safe.
BRUCE MACLER: While we know that there was contamination there, and we have some very high levels, worrisome levels, we also know nobody's drinking that water, and they never will.
SIEGLER: But how can the state know that for sure? Macler told me he's pretty confident that after more recent testing, the water being delivered to homes with people in them is safe. Well, this is of little solace to fire survivors we talked to, who complained that government agencies are taking a cavalier attitude toward public health. But Macler says the state can only regulate water up to the moment it enters a property.
MACLER: The Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal level and the state equivalent of it, stops at the meter. Congress did not ask us to go into people's homes.
SIEGLER: For now, the Del Oro Water Company will test the water in your home if it survived the fire for a $70 charge.
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SIEGLER: In Magalia, Del Oro's assistant superintendent Jim Roberts takes a sample from a worried customer's kitchen sink.
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JIM ROBERTS: ...About a cup or two go through.
SIEGLER: He tells them the bottle will get shipped to a lab. But in the meantime, everything should be fine.
ROBERTS: Once this is completed, then you can go about filling up the coffee pot and...
SIEGLER: Roberts says the water going to inhabited homes like this is safe because Del Oro did rigorous flushing of its system after the fire. And this continues today. When his own home burned, he moved back to a new place nearby. The water tested safe, and he's drinking it.
ROBERTS: And as long as, you know, we feel there's any risk of any sources containing any contamination, we're going to continue to flush. So we don't know how long that's going to be. It could be years.
SIEGLER: Roberts says a wildfire taking out a whole city's infrastructure is new territory. You hear that a lot here. But for fire survivors such as Tammy Waller, patience is wearing thin.
WALLER: This is all new. And for that, I can give definitely some leeway on that. My thing is, it's OK to say you don't know.
SIEGLER: Andrew Whelton at Purdue is more blunt. He built his career advising the U.S. military on rebuilding water infrastructure.
WHELTON: The fact that it's a big disaster is no excuse anymore because what you do in disasters is you force augment. You go get super smart, trained individuals to come in to take responsibility.
SIEGLER: Until someone actually takes responsibility and ownership of big decisions and leads, Whelton warns the recovery here will continue to lag.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.
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