Auburn water worker keeps water flowing for 49 Fire while own home burns

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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With his family out of harm’s way after fleeing the approaching 49 Fire, Don Miller went to work to help save the town. Power was out at the Nevada Irrigation District water treatment plant Sunday afternoon, threatening flows to firefighters. Miller was the Placer County Water Agency’s point person in opening a rarely used connection between the two agencies’ treated water supplies. His job was to keep water flowing and pressure up during Sunday’s fire fight. With a home directly in the fire’s path, Miller said he had a major vested interest in assuring the water was available to firefighters. And when the fire had died down, he was able to go back in to see whether his efforts to open the NID-PCWA inter-tie near Bell Road had helped keep his own neighborhood from burning down. Inside the burn zone, some houses were bypassed by the flames. Unfortunately for Miller – a six-year water agency employee who works as distribution operator – he was one of the unlucky ones. The house was a charred ruin. Miller, a former volunteer firefighter, had watched Sunday afternoon with family members as the flames attacked one house then another in his Parkway Drive neighborhood. With a neighbor’s home in flames and a sheriff’s deputy yelling for them to get out, Miller, his wife, Janet, stepson, daughter-in-law, and the younger couple’s 7-month-old baby fled in vehicles parked outside. The family’s three dogs also got a ride out. They took very little with them. “We really thought in the back of our minds we would be back,” Miller said Thursday. Miller, who was on call for the weekend, had to decide whether to get his daughter-in-law’s car out or drive away in a water agency truck. He chose duty over family and the charred compact car now sits in the Miller driveway. Miller said his work to open the inter-tie – which usually flows once a year in the fall during a shutdown for canal maintenance – was actually a team effort and a credit to both agencies working together. “It’s not just opening a valve,” he said. “It’s a chain reaction. Everyone was doing their job and doing it well.” David Breninger, water agency general manager, said at no time during the fire was there any serious loss of water pressure. Power was restored on Monday, allowing water treatment to resume at the Nevada Irrigation District’s Locksley Lane plant. Miller and his family are staying at an Auburn hotel and starting the process of rebuilding at their burned-over home site. He said support from his water agency co-workers has been tremendous. “It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “To me the agency is one big family.”