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Firefighters: Some fire hydrants didn’t work while battling wildfire

Officials said power outages caused by the fire and heavy winds left some water pumping stations inoperable, meaning water couldn’t reach the fire hydrants

By Sarah Parvini and Dakota Smith
Los Angeles Times

VENTURA, Calif. — As firefighters battled a destructive wildfire that swept through neighborhoods in Ventura, they were stymied by some fire hydrants that didn’t work.

Officials said power outages caused by the fire and heavy winds left some water pumping stations inoperable, meaning water couldn’t reach the fire hydrants.

It’s unclear how many hydrants lost water pressure. But water officials said elevated areas — including canyons and hillside neighborhoods hit hard by the fires — tended to suffer the most from the lack of water pressure.

The lack of operable hydrants “definitely presented a challenge to us,” said Ventura County Fire Department Capt. Steve Kaufmann.

This is far from the first time that California firefighters have been hampered by a lack of water pressure due to power outages. During the deadly 2016 Erskine fire in Kern Country, flames took down utility poles, and the blackouts resulted in fire hydrants that wouldn’t pump.

Ventura Water spokesman Craig Jones said the combination of increased water use and the lack of power led to failures in the utility’s distribution system. The problem were greatest during the first hours of the fire, which began Monday evening.

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, the utility had restored water pressure by using generators, after employees worked through the night.

“It’s extraordinary fire,” Jones said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

The Thomas fire has burned more than 55,000 acres, forced more than 27,000 people to evacuate, and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in Ventura County.

Firefighters hadn’t achieved containment on the fire as of Tuesday evening.

The powerful winds that were spreading the fire also were blamed for significant blackouts across the region that left more than 260,000 customers without power.

At one point Monday night, Southern California Edison said that 180,000 customers in Ventura County and 83,000 in Santa Barbara had lost power.

By late Tuesday morning, power had been restored to all but 15,000 customers in those areas, an Edison spokeswoman said.

Blackouts also were reported in parts of the San Fernando Valley.

In Ojai, the entire water system went down — hydrants and drinking water. The pumping system there was damaged by the fire.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said street hydrants typically are fed water by a reservoir at a higher location and gravity delivers water to the hydrant.

But some areas rely on a pumping station to help the water get to the hydrant.

Some Santa Barbara neighborhoods rely on pumps because the hydrants are located at a higher site than the reservoirs. Houses in hillsides or up in canyons may also have their own water tank, for instance.

Another scenario that can reduce water pressure during a fire is when numerous homeowners use hoses to douse their houses or land, Eliason said.

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