With Landscape Ablaze, Portable Restroom Operators Stepped in to Help

A California wildfire crisis tests the skills and endurance of the crew at B&B Portable Toilets

With Landscape Ablaze, Portable Restroom Operators Stepped in to Help

Technician Robert Lawson loads a restroom for delivery on a service route. The truck is a Dodge 5500 built out by FMI Truck Sales & Service/WorkMate and using a Masport pump.

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Tavis Cain is the owner of B&B Portable Toilets in Blue Lake, California, along with his wife, Jessica Cain, who handles the books and his sister and her husband, Tasha and Kenny Eisner, who operate the family garbage-business. His parents, Greg and Christine Cain, who started the company, continue to help out as needed. Staff includes longtime secretary Eava Minton, Thomas Olsen who manages festivals and fire camps, two mechanics, one office worker, and 14 technicians. 


About 35 years ago Greg and Christine Cain founded Humboldt Sanitation & Recycling, a trash collection company in McKinleyville. They got into the portable restroom business in 2000 when they bought out B&B Portable Toilets. “I was just graduating high school,” Tavis Cain explains, “and they basically said they’d look at getting the company if we were interested in helping run it.” In 2013, they separated the restroom division from the trash business and moved the operation to Blue Lake.

Inventory is around 2,000 units (PolyPortables and Satellite Industries), and the company works within a 150-mile radius, providing services for construction, agriculture, and firefighting operations, as well as special events. They also haul contaminated water.


The company is contracted with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, and the U.S. Forest Service — as are a lot of companies, Cain says. What makes one company’s name pop out from the list when services are needed are the ability to respond immediately, sufficient inventory, the quality of the inventory, and experience. Cain believes this is why CAL FIRE called them although they’re five hours away from Santa Rosa where the fire camp was set up.

“I like to think it’s our reputation and the fact that they needed over 100 toilets and 60 sinks the next day,” Cain says. “We’ve been doing this for quite a while and can get that kind of quantity to them.” 


On Oct. 8, 2017, a wildfire broke out near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, one of more than a dozen fires that month in Northern California. Fueled by fierce winds, the Tubbs Fire quickly spread to parts of Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. Within three hours it reached Santa Rosa. Before it was finally contained three weeks later, 37,000 acres, 5,300 structures, and 22 lives were lost — one of the most destructive fires in the state’s history. 


At 11 p.m. on Oct. 9, Cain received a call from CAL FIRE. A late night fire call is not unusual, he says, but they didn’t expect one in October.

“Fires still happen but something of this magnitude doesn’t. We had everything cleaned up and were winterizing and putting everything away. And everybody was just burned out because we’d had a long, long summer.” Despite the exhaustion factor, everyone took his call that night and jumped into action. By 2:30 a.m., three GMC 3500 pickups with 20-unit trailers (McKee Technologies - Explorer Trailers) carrying 60 units and 30 hand-wash stations were headed out to Santa Rosa. Units were dropped off at the county fairgrounds — base camp for the 7,500 firefighters — and the process repeated. The company stayed until Oct. 27.


The initial request was for 100 units, but from experience, Cain knew more would be called for. However, after dropping off two loads, the company had depleted their supply as there had been an unexpected proliferation of agriculture work from the new marijuana industry. Cain called PolyPortables, and the manufacturer started shipping units to the site 250 miles away from its Fresno facility as fast as they could build them. The company also drove to Fresno to pick up loads.

After buying 200 restrooms and 60 hand-wash stations, B&B Portable Toilets eventually supplied 360 units, 140 hand-wash stations, an eight-stall Advanced Containment Systems shower trailer, and a 12-station Rich Specialty Trailers hand-wash trailer. Units were scattered around the fairgrounds in banks of 10 about every 100 feet. And 75 were placed in 12 spike camps closer to the fire line, shuttled into the difficult terrain six at a time using a four-wheel-drive vacuum truck.


The company set up camp at the fairgrounds and stayed for the duration. That included eight to 12 employees, a 38-foot Raptor toy hauler RV, a few tents, five Dodge 550 vacuum trucks (2012-18) from FMI Truck Sales & Service with WorkMate 600-gallon waste and 350-gallon freshwater steel tanks and Masport pumps, one 2017 Freightliner with a 2,500-gallon aluminum tank and Masport pump built out by Amthor International, and a Chevrolet 2500 four-wheel-drive pickup with a WorkMate 350-gallon waste and 100-gallon freshwater aluminum slide-in tank to service spike camps. Food was supplied by CAL FIRE.

Fairground units were serviced twice daily with two technicians per truck beginning at 7 a.m., finishing around 1 p.m., and then again at 4 p.m. Units couldn’t necessarily be cleaned in order, Cain says. “You couldn’t pump in areas where people were sleeping, and you had to work around the kitchen crew and eating times. You had to learn the times and adapt to it as fast as possible.” 

Servicing spike camps was even trickier. They were difficult to get to and moved every day. The company used Google Maps with pin drops and a Greenalp GPS system to keep track of units. Despite the closeness to the fire, the company was never in any danger, Cain says, and no special gear was required. “They’ll never put you in harm’s way. They’ve got this down to an art, and you never feel unsafe.”

Waste from the Dodge trucks was transferred to the Freightliner and then taken to the Santa Rosa treatment plant.


It was 48 hours before Cain and five others got any sleep after that initial call. And for the first few days, the crew worked 14 to 16 hours a day until things settled down. “It was really brutal,” Cain says. “But everyone on the fire is the same way, from the firefighters to the people providing services.”

Afterward Cain treated the team to a bowling party. “We gave away prizes and gave out bonuses. And we pay pretty darn well at the fires. We bump up the pay quite a bit.”

Other than one employee treated on site for heat exhaustion, no mishaps occurred despite the tough conditions, driving through nights and lack of sleep. “With the amount of toilets and what we had to pull off to make this happen, we were very fortunate,” Cain says. “The crew I have is just amazing.”

This article was originally posted May 2018.


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