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The Paradise Fire Survivors Have Another Big Worry: Poisoned Water

by Ani Ucar
May 29 2019, 10:06pm

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PARADISE, California — For Phillip Harvey, rebuilding his home in Paradise was the only option.

“The majority of people in town are not people that came back to rebuild,” said Harvey, who's lived in Paradise his entire life. “The majority of people who are in town are poor bastards who couldn't afford to leave.”

Six months after California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire tore through the area, the number of people still living in Paradise is down to 2,000 to 3,000, where there used to be about 26,000 residents. About 10,000 homes and 1,000 businesses were destroyed, and 85 people perished. Harvey and his wife and three daughters had to retreat to a shelter just before the flames of the Camp Fire swallowed their two mobile homes. As they rebuild, they're proceeding with a mix of hope and worry.

 Philip and Krystin Harvey
Husband and wife Philip and Krystin Harvey on the property where they are rebuilding their lives in Paradise after the Camp Fire burned down their two mobile homes. (Ani Ucar/VICE News)

All across town, there are messages with the promise of “we will rebuild” and “we got this,” but besides the threat of more wildfires in the future, there are more immediate threats. Like the local water supply.

The Paradise Irrigation District, the City's water authority, has warned residents to avoid drinking the water because of unsafe levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzine, believed to have come from burned materials that seeped into the pipes. Making water safe to drink again will require testing and repairing a system that includes 172 miles of pipeline — a project the district estimates will take roughly three years and cost up to $300 million.

But while the price tag to rebuild is expected to rise, Paradise natives hope people don’t give up on them.

“Think about your community: Would it be worth it?” said Bill Taylor, water treatment superintendent for the Paradise Irrigation District. “I don't know what the cost is going to be. Sure it's going to be high, but where else do you want people to go?”

This segment originally aired May 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.