Paradise resident 'forced' to move home after wildfire without access to safe water

PHOTO: The Camp Fire burns in the hills, Nov. 11, 2018 near Oroville, Calif.PlayJustin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE
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In the wake of the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, the residents of Paradise are slowly returning and rebuilding.

But even though one Paradise resident's home survived the wildfire, her family's saga of returning to a normal life is far from over. While the structure of resident Kyla Awalt's home is still intact, she said it has no access to running water -- a widespread problem in the area after the historic fire -- but her insurance company has ruled that the water issue isn't covered by her home insurance policy.

"We were literally forced to move back home and figure out a solution to get us water," Awalt told ABC News' Brad Mielke on "Start Here."

Even if her pipes started working, she wouldn't be able to drink it. The Paradise Irrigation District has warned every resident that the city's water supply is not potable, after testing revealed several positive results for benzene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said short-term exposure to the chemical can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as issues with concentration, dizziness, convulsions, irregular heartbeat and vomiting.

Long-term exposure to benzene causes anemia and cancer, specifically leukemia, according to the CDC.

The Camp Fire swept through Butte County in November, killing 85 people in the town of Paradise and destroying 90% city's structures. Since then, about 1,500 have moved back, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Awalt, a mother of two, has been back at her home in Paradise since early January, shortly after the town reopened in December. She told ABC News she and her family were evacuated for 2 1/2 months, and moved to four different locations during that time.

PHOTO: A mural by artist Shane Grammer is visible on the wall of a building destroyed by the Camp Fire on Feb. 11, 2019 in Paradise, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A mural by artist Shane Grammer is visible on the wall of a building destroyed by the Camp Fire on Feb. 11, 2019 in Paradise, Calif.

Thankfully, her husband was able to find their home still standing after the blaze.

"It was incredible for us to just know that it survived and that we were one of the very, very few ... we're the only house on our street," Awalt said, adding that they still had work to do to make the home habitable.

"We had to get the home cleaned for smoke inhalation," she said. "We needed the insulation repaired and replaced."

Awalt said she asked the family's insurance company when it would stop covering the rent the family was paying to stay elsewhere, as well as extra gas and extra food out of pocket.

"They were very clear numerous times. Once the house is cleaned, it's considered livable and that they would stop any additional living expenses that we were receiving," she said.

PHOTO: A group of U.S. Forest Service firefighters monitor a back fire while battling to save homes at the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 8, 2018. Stephen Lam/Reuters, FILE
A group of U.S. Forest Service firefighters monitor a back fire while battling to save homes at the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 8, 2018.

The house was cleaned and back to normal -- but the town's plumbing system was not.

"There is absolutely no water," she said. "There's no way to flush toilets. There's no way to wash your hands."

"There's no way that I would even turn it on," Awalt continued. "Because what happens is, once you turn it on, let's say there is that contamination in that line, and you bring it into your home while it contaminates the pipes. So it literally binds to your pipes and will continue to leach into your home."

Awalt said she filed a claim to have a new water tank installed in her home but her insurance company said that water contamination was a utility company issue that had "nothing to do with her plumbing."

"Our meter was not burned," she said. "If our meter had been burned, they would have covered the tank, but our meter wasn't even burned. So the fact that there was no water ... it didn't matter."

Awalt said she received a letter from Farmers Insurance dated Jan. 11, 2019, that read, in part: "You requested coverage for a water tank, pump and full-up due to the citywide water outage. Per your policy, there must be actual, accidental direct, distinct and demonstrable physical loss or damage to the water system on your premise for additional; living expense coverage to apply, and for us to cover the water tank. We did not find any damage to the water system on your premise. Unfortunately there is no coverage for your claim based on the facts known to us at the present time."

Awalt then filed a complaint with the California Department of Insurance concerning her issue with the water tank coverage.

In response to the insurance commissioner complaint, Awalt said she received a letter from Farmers Insurance dated Jan. 22, 2019, that read, in part, "Unfortunately, the damage was done to the city's infrastructure resulting in the loss of water service, but there was no direct damage to your water meter or water lines. Based on the policy language, we cannot extend coverage for the expense."

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She said the situation is putting her in an impossible situation.

"You're still paying your mortgage, and now you're also having to pay rent," she said.

Awalt said she and her husband have had to pay out of their pocket for a water tanker from a private company until the water issue in Paradise is fixed.

City officials said the blaze created a "toxic cocktail" of gases that were sucked into homes' water pipes, according to the Bee.

In a statement to ABC News, Farmers said: "We have worked with our customer to pay all benefits due under her policy for direct damage to her residence resulting from the Paradise wildfire. While the homeowner has submitted requests for additional compensation, those supplementary items fall outside of the limitations of the policy, thus not compensable under her policy. We have discussed these items with our customer and are available to review any new information she may have related to this matter."

"It's all been made clear to everybody. Don't drink it," Awalt said. "You don't want to use hot water because it makes the benzene go airborne ... so you're told to use lukewarm water."

Residents of Paradise are being told not to drink the tap water and use only bottled water, according to the Paradise Irrigation District website.

She said officials told residents not to take baths, only showers.

"Everybody's really cautious right now," she said. "It's funny, my son -- he had a baseball practice up in ... the city just above us. And their water's fine. So he was at baseball practice, and one of the kids went over to get a drink out of the drinking fountain -- and my son yelled across the field. 'Don't drink the water, it's got benzene!' And so it was just really interesting seeing how the kids in the community is really affected by this."