Fixing the flow | SierraSun.com

Fixing the flow

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun
Ryan Salm/Sierra Sun photo illustrationCaptain Gunning from the North Tahoe Fire Protection District attaches a hose line to a fire hydrant. The lack of fire hydrants in many of the areas in both North Tahoe and Tahoe City Public Utility District boundaries can pose a risk for fire prevention in that it takes that much longer to get the resources, such as water supply, to put out a fire.
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Residents in a handful of neighborhoods on Lake Tahoe’s north and west shores have more than one reason to worry about a catastrophic wildfire in the basin.

One notable risk is the absence of accessible fire hydrants.

Now, along with South Lake Tahoe, the North Tahoe and Tahoe City public utility districts are looking for state and federal funding to improve parts of the water system in sub-standard condition.

“There are some real issues with delivery, storage, water pressure and inadequate spacing of hydrants,” said Chief Duane Whitelaw of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District in a phone interview.

“What we do, because we don’t have any control over that, we make provisions to bring water with us when we come.”

“It still poses a real threat because these resources have to come from farther away … those areas potentially are placed at a higher risk,” he added.

Within the Tahoe City utility district boundaries, several of the private water purveyors don’t have fire hydrants.

In Kings Beach, Tahoe Vista and Carnelian Bay, fire-suppression issues have more to do with the layout of the communities.

The Kings Beach grid, for example, has water lines beneath residential back yards that are just 1- to 2-inches thick ” not large enough for a sufficient flow.

“It’s consistent with the development of the basin,” said General Manager Steve Rogers of the North Tahoe Public Utility District. “They date back to some of the district’s oldest developments.”

The North Tahoe district is making efforts to improve the water lines beneath the streets and has installed hydrants. Rogers estimated the cost to totally reconstruct the water system at $18 million.

“The strategy is probably going to be a combination of rate increases and a continued effort to develop appropriate grant funding,” Rogers said.

North Tahoe, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe public utility districts have met several times, even before the devastation of the Angora Fire on Tahoe’s South Shore, to brainstorm ways to obtain grant funding.

If there were a fire in any one of the subdivisions without adequate fire suppression, the fire district does have access to extra engines and water tenders.

“They would have to truck water in … they would have to, more than likely, run hoses from our hydrants if they could,” said Tahoe City Public Utility District General Manager Bob Lourey about Lake Forest.

As the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe demonstrated, time is critical in fighting fires. Officials agree that readily available fire-suppression resources can be the difference between saving property and losing it.

“The problem is that it takes time for those resources to get there,” Whitelaw said.

“We’re pretty fortunate here, most of the development in Truckee has happened in the last 40 years or so ” most of our areas have hydrants,” said Ed Taylor, Truckee Donner Public Utility District water utility manager.

Though Truckee neighborhoods are newer, when the utility district took over the Donner Lake area it had to first rebuild the entire water system.

But now, the district is in good shape in terms of fire suppression, Taylor said.

Despite the increased risks associated with the absence of immediate fire suppression tools like hydrants, fire district officials say safety is still not guaranteed.

“Nothing ensures fire safety. There are always risks,” Whitelaw said. “The property owner is still responsible to ensure defensible space, to ensure they keep up on things like smoke detectors, alarms … and to have a good fire safety escape plan.”