Home Preparedness How Firefighters Get Their Water, And Why It's Sometimes Tricky To Get Enough

How Firefighters Get Their Water, And Why It's Sometimes Tricky To Get Enough


Javier Hernandez rushed to his Santiago Estates home in Sylmar earlier this month only to watch it go up in flames.

Neighbors told him that the fire hydrant closest to their Gavina Avenue home appeared not to be working. Hernandez noticed that firefighters had resorted to using extensions to connect to a fire hydrant that was farther away while battling that portion of the destructive Creek fire.

Some members of his family couldn't help but wonder whether their home of 14 years might have been saved otherwise.

Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Trevor Richmond could not say whether there had been any issues related to the fire hydrants that belong to the mobile home park, where about 30 homes were damaged by the quick-moving blaze.

But if there was, the water main attached to the hydrant could have been overwhelmed due to the high amount of water being used during the blaze, along with a large number of residents turning on their sprinklers and garden hoses, thereby reducing the fire hydrant's water pressure, he said.

There's also a chance that the same water pipe could have been broken, Richmond said. A representative for Santiago Estates, however, said they had just passed their annual fire hydrant test and certification on Dec. 4, a day before the wind-fueled blaze erupted in the foothills.

Regardless, the scenario underscores the importance -- and at times the challenge -- of quickly and easily accessing large quantities of water as firefighters struggle to protect life and property.

In the deadly North San Francisco Bay fires of last October, about 11.1 million gallons of water were used compared to just over 3 million gallons of fire retardant, according to a Cal Fire spokesman. The amount of water used so far in the Southern California's December wildfires was not yet available on Thursday.

"When we go to large incidents, there are times when there is such a demand for water that the water systems can be overwhelmed," LAFD Capt. Branden Silverman said. "Obviously, on a brush fire like (the Creek fire), multiple fire hydrants in the same area are all being drawn to their maximum capacity so there is a chance that there is much less water pressure than we're used to having."

Firefighters will often draw from multiple fire hydrants during a large blaze and search for hydrants attached to larger water pipes to ensure enough water, he added.

"When we go to large incidents, there are times when there is such a demand for water that the water systems can be overwhelmed."

-- LAFD Capt. Branden Silverman

As wildfires have scorched large swaths of the region, water-related concerns have attracted headlines in recent weeks. Among them, the Los Angeles Times reported that firefighters battling the deadly Thomas fire were hampered early on by some fire hydrants that didn't work in the city of Ventura largely due to power outages.

"The firestorm came in spurred by hurricane force winds. Between houses unfortunately being damaged and water pressure being lost, our (water) tanks were being drained at a tremendous amount," Kevin Brown, who heads the city of Ventura's water department, said in a phone interview.

"We had to get pumps put on generator power because we had a citywide power loss -- and it was just an overwhelming event," he said.

Because their water pumps are electrical, officials had to place the pumps on generators to boost water pressure on the hill, Brown said. Without enough water pressure, there's no water available at the top of the lines. The water system was being drained not only from open fire hydrants but also from damage the fire had caused to homes and irrigation systems.

"It's like Swiss cheese -- you can't keep pressure when water keeps leaking out of the system," Brown said, calling the situation "an unprecedented event" for the city that was still being examined.

While most cities depend on pumps for their water supply, the city of Los Angeles' water supply relies mostly on gravity -- though about a quarter of its water is pumped, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Critical pumping stations have a back up in case of power outages.

Besides local fire hydrants, firefighters rely on a variety of water sources to fight fires, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said.

Fire engines, which often carry about 500 gallons of water, and water tenders, which carry anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of water, can also draw water out of nearly any standing water body, including swimming pools, ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes.

"If those water sources are farther away, the more water tenders you use to get that volume of water on those fires," McLean said.

Firefighting helicopters have the ability to retrieve water with buckets or long hoses -- dubbed snorkels -- from a pond on a ranch or a waterway that is relatively calm as long as it is safe to do so, McLean said.

Finding water is not usually a problem, though firefighters sometimes have to go farther to get it. Before the state's drought ended, firefighters in some areas had to travel longer distances to get water after many ponds had dried up, McLean said.

"When that happens, you bring in more (firefighting) aircraft to get the time efficiency down," he said.

Ocean water can also be used to fight fires but because salt is corrosive, they have to wash out the aircraft with fresh water afterward, he said.

In what McLean hailed as some "good news," Cal Fire is now moving to acquire 12 Black Hawk helicopters in the coming years as they phase out some older choppers.

"We're going to go with a firefighting version of that helicopter to meet our needs on the firefighting side as well as the rescue side," he said.

The full service fire department has been using the Bell UH-1 series Iroquois or "Huey" helicopters, which date back to the Vietnam era and for which parts are hard to find, he said.

But regardless of the technology, some are quick to point out that attempts to tame Mother Nature have their limits.

When it comes to large wildfires like the mammoth Thomas fire, what firefighters do is "trivial compared to the energy of the fire," argued Richard A. Minnich, a professor of earth sciences at University of California, Riverside.

"It's like spitting in the wind," he said

High winds can render firefighting aircraft ineffective either because the water will miss its target or because it's unsafe to fly, he said.

Such wildfires often burn themselves out, he said. Starting controlled blazes so that there's thinner vegetation and less fuel for the fire can be helpful in certain situations.

"In other words, you've got to live with fire and work with it," he said. ___


This article is written by Brenda Gazzar from Los Angeles Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.