Public Eye: Carmichael house fire exposed fire hydrant problem

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Losing his home and his belongings, including two dogs, in a fire was difficult enough, but Carmichael resident John McGlynn said it has been even harder to accept because of the suspicion that a malfunctioning fire hydrant contributed to the loss.

McGlynn and his wife were at the home they were renting on La Colina Way about 6:30 p.m. July 31 when his wife discovered a fire in the garage.

Firefighters arrived but encountered a water flow problem when they connected a hose to the fire hydrant in front of the next-door neighbor's house, McGlynn said. Some firefighters used neighbors' garden hoses until fire hose could be extended from a hydrant at the end of the street, he said.

McGlynn's wife suffered minor injuries and was taken to the hospital for evaluation. But the couple were most distressed by the loss of their two small dogs, which they were unable to rescue from the house before the fire spread.

"They were like our kids," McGlynn said.

Fire investigators have listed the cause of the fire as undetermined, McGlynn said, but he believes the outcome might have been different if the hydrant had worked.

"If the fire had been contained to the garage, I know that the rest of the house might have gotten smoke damage, but things wouldn't have burned," he said.

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District officials say the malfunctioning hydrant didn't significantly affect firefighting efforts.

"It's not entirely uncommon to have a hydrant issue," said Assistant Chief Walt White.

He said the incident report indicated low flow from the hydrant closest to McGlynn's house.

"After reviewing the incident reports and talking with the incident commander, he feels that the hydrant issue did not impact water flow on the fire," White said in an email.

The first engine company to arrive initially used tank water to fight the fire, he said.

"In this instance, our incident commander, upon notification of the hydrant issue, immediately directed another arriving company to connect to another hydrant and supply the first company," White said.

According to the California Fire Code, he said, fire hydrants are to be spaced approximately 300 feet apart in residential neighborhoods. But White said Metro Fire engine companies carry 800 feet of wide-diameter hose that can be quickly deployed to more distant hydrants.

When the department discovers problems with a hydrant, it notifies the responsible water agency, which typically either corrects the problem or places a bag over the hydrant to alert firefighters that it is out of service, White said.

Carmichael Water District spokesman Chris Nelson said the district was notified of the problem on La Colina Way three days after the fire. A maintenance crew discovered that the valve was only halfway open and immediately corrected the problem, Nelson said.

Hydrants typically are flow tested when they are installed by a developer or contractor, he said. In this case, he said, the flow test probably occurred when the hydrant was installed in 2008.

The district also periodically flushes lines for water quality and to test hydrants. "With a district our size, we have 1,300 fire hydrants, so that takes a while," Nelson said.

Why the valve was only halfway open on this hydrant has not been determined. Neither firefighters nor water district crews would have known of the problem until they attempted to use the hydrant, Nelson said.

One problem the district encounters is contractors doing work in neighborhoods who sometimes use the district's hydrants without permission.

"They're not supposed to use our facilities, but we come upon that periodically," Nelson said, explaining that anyone with the proper tool can turn on a hydrant.

"We urge our customers to call us if they see someone tampering with a hydrant," he said.

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Read more articles by Cathy Locke

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