On the Front Lines at Oroville Dam: Little Sleep, Lots of OT

Quarry co-owner Mike Starcher improvised this gravel-sack valentine for his two girls, after duty called at the Oroville Dam. (Craig Miller/KQED)

When the first alarms went out earlier this month that Oroville Dam's emergency spillway might collapse, a "small city" sprang up almost overnight on the hillsides flanking the imperiled dam.

Wartime metaphors also came to mind.

"This is on the scale of a battlefield," said Eric See, a public information officer with the state’s Department of Water Resources, who says he’s never seen anything like this.

See gave Cal Fire, the state agency more accustomed to tackling wildfires, much of the credit for the rapid mobilization.

"They came in and set up overnight," says See, with everything from food trucks and generators, to telephone connections, to portable showers.

A cacophony of heavy equipment and helicopters continues around the clock above Oroville Dam, just steps from surrounding homes.
A cacophony of heavy equipment and helicopters continues around the clock above Oroville Dam, just steps from surrounding homes. (Craig Miller/KQED)

All of this is  supporting nearly 500 people on scene, including a hundred construction workers, give or take, who’ve been doing the grunt work 24-7 to make the critical repairs to the crippled spillway.

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On a hillside staging area above the south end of Oroville dam, huge yellow dump trucks full of rocks rumble in with their loads, one right behind another, while in the air above, Blackhawk helicopters swoop in, lifting 4,000-pound bags of stone and gravel like raptors grabbing mice from a field. So rapid is the cycle of ferrying fill material across the dam to the spillway, that two helicopters often arrive for new loads within a minute of each other.

The helicopters are some of the same ones that spend summers dropping buckets of water on wildfires. The work is pretty similar, according to Evan Welsch, a mechanic with Red Bluff-based P.J. Helicopters, except now instead of water buckets, they're hauling bags of gravel and sand.

Blackhawk helicopters buzzed back and forth across the dam, carrying 4,000-pound sacks of rock and gravel.
Blackhawk helicopters buzzed back and forth across the dam, carrying 4,000-pound sacks of rock and gravel. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The choppers have been placing those “super-sacks.” as they’re called, into huge gashes carved out when Oroville’s lake waters topped the emergency spillway two weeks ago, and tore down the earthen slope into the Feather River below.

"Some of the bags have big rocks, some of ‘em have sand, some have gravel," says Mike Starcher, whose quarry, Sierra Silica, has been supplying much of the material. "It just depends on where the geologists want to layer ‘em in there."

Like See, Starcher, whose company has been part-owner of Sierra Silica for 15 years, also says he's never seen anything like this deployment — 2000 bags and counting,  just from his operation. And each one had to be filled and transported by workers who knew they could be risking their lives by remaining at quarries just down river.

"There are some tough folks in this town," says Starcher. He shrugs off the scant amount of sleep he's had, saying "there are guys out here who have gone 30 hours on end without any."

When most people evacuated Oroville, Reggie Gaston stayed behind in the flood zone to work on repairing the spillway.
When most people evacuated Oroville, Reggie Gaston stayed behind in the flood zone to work on repairing the spillway. (Craig Miller/KQED)

One of them is Reggie Gaston, who was zipping around on a forklift, lining up sacks where choppers could snatch them up. When Gaston’s wife and four kids were evacuated to high ground, he stayed behind, knowing the work he was doing could save his town from catastrophe.

"Yeah, they were pretty worried," he admits. "They wanted me to come home and I said, ‘I can’t.'"

But Gaston says there was no pressure to stay on the job.

"Bosses were concerned," he recalls. "They said family comes first, but if you feel like they’re safe, we can use some help."

At one point, contractors were dumping 40 truckloads per hour into the eroded emergency spillway.
At one point, contractors were dumping 40 truckloads per hour into the eroded emergency spillway. (Craig Miller/KQED)

At the peak of the frenzy last week, crews were pouring fill material into the ravaged spillway at the rate of 40 truckloads an hour. Though 100,000 cubic yards of rock, sand and gravel had gone into shoring up the spillway by Tuesday evening of this week (picture 100,000 pickup trucks lined up), it’s a job that is still far from finished.

"Right now we’re fighting the winter, fighting the rain, fighting the water," says Gaston. "Hopefully by summertime or spring the rain has died down enough and dam has dropped down enough where they can actually fix the problem."

As for Starcher, he had to miss spending Valentines Day with his two girls, Claire and Catherine, whom he calls “Beeps.” So he took a can of red spray paint to two of the giant white bags of gravel and made them a valentine selfie; big red heart on one, their names on the other. His valentine will become part of the new, reinforced spillway.

Gaston, who’s spent most of his 30 years as an Oroville resident, never thought the nearly 800-foot-high dam looming above them would end up menacing his family and neighbors.

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"Not really," he admits. "But I have to say it is a man-made item. Man-made items do fall—and they do fail."

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