Hydrant push reveals problem in older neighborhoods - Tucson Local Media: Import

Hydrant push reveals problem in older neighborhoods

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Posted: Thursday, November 9, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

November 8, 2006 - When Ted Eyde moved into his Foothills home 34 years ago, fire hydrants weren't on his mind.

But after a fire engulfed a home down the block a few months ago, he and other Shadow Roc neighborhood residents realized they are in danger.

The homes of Shadow Roc, nestled in the hills just north of Ina Road and east of Oracle Road and surrounded by heavy brush and vegetation, don't have fire hydrants, which can make it harder and take longer to put out a fire. So the Shadow Roc Homeowners Association is taking the matter into its own hands and asking all 139 households to pony up $750 by the end of November to get them installed.

"We've had a really wet year and the grass has really grown, but if we go into a dry season like we had last June, we could really burn," Eyde said.

The lack of fire hydrants isn't limited to this Foothills community. Many neighborhoods developed in the 1960s, '70s and even '80s don't have hydrants, and often don't have underground water lines wide enough to support the hydrants, making them doubly expensive to install.

Area fire districts and water companies are aware of the problem, most are gradually working to fill in areas without hydrants. But there is no county-wide effort to address the problem.

Metro Water, for example, borrowed more than $10 million in bond money to replace water mains and install hydrants, and Northwest Fire District has allocated money from its budget in years past for hydrant installation in some areas. Northwest and Rural/Metro also have acquired federal community block grants designed for low-income areas to install hydrants.

But Shadow Roc is not in a fire district, and its income level makes it ineligible for a community block grant. Rural/Metro, a private fire company, services Shadow Roc's fire needs, leaving hydrant installation up to the water company or the residents.

Willie Treatch, fire marshal for Rural/Metro, said he has worked with fire districts and homeowners associations like Shadow Roc to get hundreds of hydrants installed in older neighborhoods.

Treatch said Shadow Roc could wait to try to get Pima County to pay for it through a property tax-paid improvement project, but that could take a few years.

When a fire occurs in an area without hydrants, firefighters use water tenders, which are large trucks that transport water and can carry anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of water.

But in the case of Fred Howard, whose Shadow Roc home burned in June, just after he renovated and added on, the tenders weren't enough.

Howard said Rural/Metro firefighters responded with two 3,500-gallon water tenders but had to stop and refill a half-a-mile away in the middle of trying to extinguish the fire. A hydrant could have poured 15,000 gallons on the fire immediately, Howard and Eyde said.

"We're not blaming Rural/Metro, but we're stuck with a developed subdivision with a fire department with equipment that's designed for a rural area," Eyde said. "We need an unlimited source of water."

The Rural/Metro water tenders had to come from stations as far away as Thornydale and Magee roads and Kolb and Sunrise roads, Eyde said.

Eyde, and the other 70 percent of Shadow Roc homeowners who have already paid their $750, fear the overgrown brush combined with a dry spell and high winds will create a deadly combination if a fire started. They're afraid it could set the whole neighborhood ablaze.

Randy Karrer, the fire marshal for Northwest Fire District, said the district has a lot of areas, particularly west and southwest of Marana, that don't have fire hydrants. But Karrer said the district has tried to be proactive. It installed hydrants in Flowing Wells with the help of $50,000 community block grants. It also used $70,000 of its own money this past year to install hydrants in Tucson Mountain.

Karrer said installation isn't cheap but it helps drive down the cost of homeowners insurance and can be very beneficial when trying to put out a fire.

The amount of hydrants in a neighborhood contributes to the area's "protection class," which determines the insurance rates, said Deryl Shipp, an agent at Arizona Central Insurance.

Most of the Tucson metropolitan area is labeled protection class two, but some parts west of Marana and in and around Oracle are class six or higher. Shipp said rates for homes in protection class 10, the highest, can be twice as much as class five or six.

In newly developed commercial areas, Pima County requires a hydrant every 300 feet, and one every 600 feet in residential development, Karrer said.

Although hydrants are key, Karrer said people should consider installing residential sprinklers in new homes.

"Around $1 a square foot, it's not that expensive," he said. "That's like having a 24-7 firefighter in your home. It saves lives."

But installing sprinklers after the home is built is harder and more expensive, Karrer said.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly where hydrants don't exist. The older developments seemed to be dispersed throughout the Northwest.

When fire departments are called to a fire, John Sullivan, spokesman for Golder Ranch Fire District, said firefighters check a large book that contains the house plats for each neighborhood, and firefighters are able to see whether hydrants exist and where they are positioned.

In Oro Valley there are about seven neighborhoods serviced by the Oro Valley Water Utility without hydrants, including Campo Bello, Rancho Verde, Tangerine Meadows, Tangerine Hills, Linda Vista Citrus Track, and in Oro Valley Country Club, El Milagro, Calle Bueno Vista and Banglor.

Oro Valley Water Utility Director Philip Saletta said Oro Valley isn't planning on installing hydrants or replacing pipes to install hydrants.

Saletta said that is the responsibility of the original developer, even though the neighborhood was developed before the fire code required hydrants.

Sullivan, whose district serves Oro Valley, said installing hydrants is the water company's responsibility.

What's more, he said large enough water lines must be in place to serve the hydrants.

"We'd love to work with additional associations to bring fire hydrants but you have to have the infrastructure," Sullivan said. "But the water mains have to be at least six inches in diameter."

Warren Tenney, an engineer for the Metro Water Company, also said his company is trying to address the undersized water mains to make it possible for hydrant installation. Metro Water recently completed a $5.5 million capital improvement project to replace lines and install hydrants.

Metro Water also just started another capital improvement project and plans to spend another $6 million to replace 13 and one-half miles of water mains.

For the homeowners of Shadow Roc, luckily, most of the lines in the neighborhood are large enough to support hydrants. But it's still costly.

Tucson Water told Eyde it would cost $97,000 to install 13 hydrants. And if they don't get the money by the end of November, the water company will have to reassess the price as construction costs continue to increase.

Eyde and his neighbors don't think they can wait.

"The bottom line is that the homeowners in Shadow Roc need the hydrants now, not three or four years from now," Eyde said. "The loss of a home with all of its personal belongings and memories is a terrible tragedy."

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