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By Associated Press
PARADISE, California ̵
Officials said they believe the pollution happened after the November four storm created a toxic combination of gases in burning homes that were sucked into the water pipes, as residents and firefighters pulled water heavily, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported Thursday .
Officials say it can explain why benzene, which has been associated with anemia and leukemia, has been found in samples at various sites rather than from a source of paradise that was largely destroyed.
The chemical occurs naturally in fire; is part of crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke; and used to produce plastic, synthetic fibers and other products according to federal disease control centers.
Melted plastic meters and plastic pipes may also have sent benzene into the system, say water officials.
Paradise Irrigation District officials say they have taken about 500 water samples around the city and have found petrol 30 percent of the time.
"It's downhill," said Dan Newton of the Water Resources Control Board. "It's such a large scale. None of us were prepared for this."
Those who have assessed the problem say that the water district might clean pipes for some homes later this year, but it will take two years and up to $ 300 million before all mountain populations can drink safely, cook or bathe in the water .
About 1500 of the city's 27,000 residents live in the few surviving houses. Water officials have warned them not to drink, boil, bathe or brush their teeth with water from the faucet and only take quick showers with hot water. The inhabitants live on bottled water delivering daily and water tank supplies.
Norman Stein, 84, runs 15 minutes every week to the water distribution center, puts his suitcase with bottles and stacks them in his garage.
He and his wife, the darlene, disagree on the risk of their water from the crane in paradise. She opened the sink to show how clean the water is.
"I could feel an oily substance before. But it's done now," she said. "This is good water."
"Only that has benzene in it," she taunted. "I don't even want to brush my teeth in those things."
Stein is thinking of buying a purification system that some of his friends have done. But water officials have said they do not know how well the home filters protect residents if there is benzene in their taps.
Water experts said what happened in Paradise has only been discovered once before – during a deadly fire in Santa Rosa last year. They say California must work to ensure that the water is safe in Paradise and learn what can protect drinking water in future wildfires.
"This is really just the beginning here," said Jackson Webster, a professor of Chico State University and environmental engineer in the effects of wildfire on water quality. "The fire in Santa Rosa surprised people. Now it's happened twice. The bells are ringing."