Low pressure in hydrants delays Calif. firefighters

Probe into incident in progress.
By Adam Foxman 
Ventura County Star
Copyright 2007 Ventura County Star
All Rights Reserved

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — When Ventura County firefighters arrived at an Ojai house fire last week, they were greeted with an unpleasant surprise: The two fire hydrants nearest the burning home didn't work.

The hydrants weren't broken, but when the fire began Friday evening there wasn't enough water pressure in the hydrants to use the fire hoses.

After a few minutes of delay, the firefighters connected hoses to a hydrant a block away, relayed the water through an engine and used it to extinguish the burning home in the 400 block of Buena Vista Drive, said Battalion Chief Glenn Garcia.

The Golden State Water Co., which is responsible for the hydrants, acknowledged there was not enough water pressure to fill fire hoses. The valves that control pressure to the hydrants were partially closed, said Patrick Scanlon, vice president of operations for Golden State Water.

"There are many reasons why isolation valves or gate valves are open and closed. Why these valves were partially closed, we don't know at this time," he said.

The valves are under small metal plates that look like miniature manhole covers. They are locked, and only water company personnel, firefighters and the occasional contractor have keys, he explained.

Such incidents are rare, and an investigation into why it happened is in progress, Scanlon said.

"Every time something like this happens we are very concerned," he said. "We're investigating the situation in Ojai, but we are also raising awareness in all the water systems throughout the state."

A resident of the home, who was home alone when the fire started, was able to get out on her own. She was hospitalized briefly for smoke inhalation, and a family dog died in the blaze.

Capt. Barry Parker said the fire spread very quickly and the short delay in pumping water did not change the outcome of fighting the fire. Firefighters used a series of fire engines to pump the water to the house.

"We train to do relay pumping," Parker said.

Trees surrounding the home had begun to burn when firefighters arrived, and the home was already consumed by flames, said Garcia, who was the incident commander for the fire.

Because no one was in the house when firefighters arrived, firefighters turned the short supply of water from their engines toward the trees to keep the fire from spreading, Garcia said.

Once they connected to a working hydrant, they extinguished the house. It was destroyed by the blaze.

The malfunctioning hydrants were still a cause for concern for firefighters.

"We can't put out fires without water," Garcia said.

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