When the deadly Erskine Fire broke out on June 23 in Kern County, California Water Service (Cal Water) employees quickly responded to assist customers served by its Squirrel Mountain, South Lake and Mountain Mesa water systems. The wildfire, the most destructive in Kern County history, burned close to 50,000 acres, destroyed 257 homes and caused two deaths.
“We were in a unique position to assist our customers because we know the community so well,” said Greg Milleman, Cal Water’s Director of Field Operations who served as Cal Water’s incident commander for the fire and tracked it operationally. “Our Local Manager Chris Whitley, who lives in the area, had to break the tragic news to several customers that their homes were no longer standing.”
As Southern California Edison lost power due to the fire, this greatly impacted several of Cal Water’s isolated water systems and required moving multiple portable generators around the area to keep water flowing for firefighters, residents and businesses. Before the generators were operational, Cal Water temporarily lost power and water pressure, resulting in Cal Water issuing a precautionary advisory for the area instructing customers to use boiled tap water or bottled water for drinking, food preparation and teeth brushing.
Recognizing the added challenge of needing to boil water, Whitley noted in a press release, “Our deepest sympathies are with the families who lost their loved ones, and our thoughts are with all of the families who have been impacted by this devastating fire. Living and working here, I see first-hand how overwhelming this is, and we understand the added challenge of some customers needing to boil their water. We apologize for the inconvenience it causes; we are issuing this as a precaution because protecting our customers’ health and safety with the drinking water supply is our highest priority.”
Cal Water also assisted the Kern County Emergency Operations Center by distributing free bottled water, donated by Nestle, 7-11, Costco and W.A. Thompson, at Cal Water’s customer center and three mobile distribution centers. Customers who purchased bottled water during the advisory were encouraged to send their receipts for reimbursement to Cal Water’s Customer Center. The water utility also asked customers who remained in their homes during the fire to reduce water consumption to ensure first responders would have adequate water supplies to fight the wildfire.
Once it was safe to do so, Cal Water tested the area water systems, which confirmed the water quality was not impacted by the power and water outage, and customers were notified the advisory on boiling water was cancelled.
To further assist those affected by the fire, Cal Water shareholders donated more than $37,000 in gift cards to customers through its philanthropic giving program. In addition to the many Cal Water employees throughout the state who assisted on the ground in Kern County, a statewide employee donation fund was established to help fire victims. Cal Water is matching the employee contributions.