Plan to Protect Neighborhoods from Fire Abandoned

No water to fight fires in southern and western neighborhoods could result from SFPUC's decision

The AWSS is a gravity-fed system originating at the Twin Peaks Reservoir. High-pressure water is delivered to higher elevations in the city via black-topped hydrants, median height to red-topped hy-drants, and blue-topped hydrants to the lower elevations. During an emergency, salt water from the bay can be pumped into the entire system to maintain water pressure high enough to fight multiple fire

As the smoke clears from the devastating fires north of San Francisco that burned roughly 200,000 acres, incinerated more than 7,000 houses and killed 42 people, San Francisco might notice the distant roar of its own disastrous inferno approaching. More than 15 San Francisco neighborhoods could burn to the ground due to a lack of water at the SF Fire Department's (SFFD) disposal after a major earthquake.

A plan to expand the city's emergency firefighting network was stalled for years because of political interference and one city agency's refusal to ask voters for all of the money that is needed to protect neighborhoods in the southern and western parts of the city. Experts say alternative plans being promoted are likely to fail, leaving vulnerable city residents, like seniors and the disabled, to perish in a firestorm of the city's making or to suffer the consequences of disease and other maladies due to a lack of fresh water after a disaster.

Experts say it is inevitable that someday there will be another earthquake on the scale of what struck the City in 1906, a 7.8 on the Richter Scale. Now, generations after the fact, the lessons learned from that catastrophe still resonate today as the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and politicians struggle to plan for the next "big one."

Estimates vary, but there could be as many as 100 fires flaring up in the outer avenues soon after a large earthquake, and many more across the city. There were 27 fires reported after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which lasted 45 seconds.”

The death toll for that calamity in 1906 is now estimated at about 3,000, according to professor Charles Scawthorn, an expert on fire modeling at UC Berkeley.

The blue-topped fire hydrants supply high-pressure water for firefighting to the AWSS's lower zone.

Before that infamous earthquake, the City had a good, functional water supply system. Then, the ground shook violently for almost three minutes and the domestic system's pipelines sustained more than 300 breaks on water mains and 23,000 breaks on service connections. Consequently, the fire department lost water pressure at the same time that busted gas lines sparked a conflagration, which ultimately devastated much of San Francisco.

According to James Dalessandro, who wrote the novel "1906," a fictional story set in San Francisco during the earthquake and its aftermath, many people died in the fires that followed the massive shaking, and only Navy ships pumping sea water down Van Ness Avenue eventually stopped the wall of flames.

While researching for his book, Dalessandro discovered that within 10 minutes of the earthquake at least 51 recorded fires broke out.

"The majority of them were in the South of Market area, which was a lot of cheap hotels and some industrial areas," he said.

Without water to fight the fires, the SFFD found itself helpless to react, so the fires soon spread among collapsed buildings until it created a conflagration that swept across the City.

The red-topped fire hydrants are used in the upper zone, above 150 feet in elevation

"The military, in their infinite genius, decided to use dynamite to try and stop the fire by blasting away at wood-frame buildings but all it did was spread the fire," he explained. "The United States Navy stopped the fire. They ran hose lines along the Embarcadero from Van Ness toward the Ferry Building. And they ran another hose line up Van Ness Avenue to California Street. They pumped salt water into the engines for fire fighters and people in the neighborhood came charging out of their buildings with curtains and blankets and towels and soaked them with salt water to beat the flames down on some of their buildings. That's what stopped the fire."

Estimates vary, but there could be as many as 100 fires flaring up in the outer avenues soon after a large earthquake, and many more across the city. There were 27 fires reported after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which lasted 45 seconds.

Frank Blackburn retired from the SFFD in 1991 as an assistant chief after a 32-year career with the department. He was also the director for earthquake preparedness.

The black-topped fire hydrants are used in the Twin Peaks Zone, servicing the city's higher elevations.

"Most people think that the earthquake did all of the damage in 1906, but no, it didn't," Blackburn said. "The fires that started following the earthquake destroyed 27,000 buildings."

Building a safety network

In the years immediately following the earthquake, city leaders designed and ordered built the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), a network of pipelines built to withstand a large earthquake that would be used exclusively for firefighting and was completely separated from the regular water supply pipelines. This system of extra-robust pipeline would be able to use both fresh water from the city's reservoirs and tanks, plus an unlimited supply of saltwater as well.

The fresh water supply relies on gravity to send water downhill from the Twin Peaks Reservoir, so it is not dependent on PG&E's electrical power, which would likely fail in a magnitude 7.8-level earthquake.

Two large pumps with independent power sources are used to push saltwater into the AWSS as needed. The pumps can supply up to 330 pounds-per-square-inch (p.s.i.) of pressure for firefighting throughout the AWSS. The system was designed to provide high-pressure water within 30 minutes of a major earthquake.

Water Pressure Availability

"It is a water system that is seismically designed to resist earthquakes," Blackburn said. "It has all kinds of contingencies and extra valves built in, so that if you have a break it can be closed off and then you can still have a water supply. Because we're a peninsula and you have saltwater in the bay and the Pacific Ocean, we have an unlimited water supply. The (AWSS) mains are heavily constructed. They have tie rods so they don't get pulled apart from underground earth movement."

The original version of the AWSS was completed by 1913, however, at the time most of the City was in the north and east sections, so the AWSS now stops at 12th Avenue in the Richmond District, 19th Avenue in the Sunset District, and at first it was not extended to other city neighborhoods, including the Bayview Heights, Crocker Amazon, Excelsior, Ingleside, Little Hollywood, Merced Manor, Mission Terrace, Oceanview, Outer Mission, Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, Parkside, Portola, Sea Cliff, Stonestown and Sunnyside.

The SFPUC includes on maps what it deems as an AWSS pipeline running from Stow Lake to Fulton Street and then west along Fulton to 48th Avenue, but the line is not constructed to AWSS standards and lacks adequate pressure for firefighting. At the hydrant at 22nd Avenue and Fulton Street, the outflow pressure is in the 30 p.s.i. range, far short of the amount needed to fight fires. The pressure increases along the line as gravity pushes the water downhill, but the line is not pressurized and has limited use for putting out fires.

Expanding the firefighting system

In 1986, voters passed a $48 million bond measure to upgrade two saltwater pumps and for several short AWSS extensions, down Portola Drive with a 20-inch diameter transmission water main to Ocean Avenue, thus covering the western border of St. Francis Wood and Balboa Terrace. Then it goes along Ocean Avenue past SF City College and up to Mission Street in a large loop bordering the Excelsior District.

The AWSS was also extended into the Inner-Sunset southward along Seventh Avenue and then turns west on Taraval Street. It then turns west on 19th Avenue to Irving Street, where it travels eastward to complete the loop.

… all of the phone landlines went down so there were communication problems getting the pump stations to kick in. Because of delays finding breaks, closing off the valves and getting pumps into operation for the seawater, the total effect was to drain the Jones Street Tank before it could be replenished.”

A smaller "loop" of the AWSS was put around a part of the Bay View, in the area of Oakdale, Third and Revere streets. But the "dead end" loop has trouble providing water to the pressure standards of the rest of the AWSS system.

The need to expand the AWSS to fully encompass the city and expand into un-served neighborhoods has been recognized for decades by city planners and firefighting experts. The SF Civil Grand Jury recognized the importance of the AWSS in 2002.

A big test for the AWSS came during the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake. For the most part the system worked, but it did fail the Marina District, mostly in liquefaction zones, so a combination of water from cisterns and fireboats pumping saltwater was used to stop fires there before they grew too big.

San Francisco has "infirm areas," where the ground has either been filled in or consists mostly of loose sand. In the downtown area, the shoreline used to be at Montgomery Street but subsequently it was filled in and the land was extended out to the Embarcadero. This makes that, and other infirm areas like the Marina District, vulnerable to liquefaction during an earthquake, where the ground temporarily becomes more like a muddy liquid than a solid.

"We had five breaks South of Market," Blackburn explained. "The high-pressure mains (AWSS), we expect them to break in those infirm areas … In 1989 we had not motorized all of our gate valves yet, so we had to do it manually."

The water supply for the South of Market and Marina District comes from the 750,000-gallon Jones Street Tank, which in turn is supplied from an AWSS pipeline coming from the Twin Peaks Reservoir.

"Those five breaks South of Market, we were unable to close off the valves right away because of all the chaos from the earthquake," Blackburn said.

At the same time, all of the phone landlines went down so there were communication problems getting the pump stations to kick in. Because of delays finding breaks, closing off the valves and getting pumps into operation for the seawater, the total effect was to drain the Jones Street Tank before it could be replenished.

"When the Jones Street Tank got drained, there was no water down in the Marina," he said.

At this time the value of having the valves motorized became obvious. Today, major valves are powered by batteries located nearby and are rigged to automatically close in the event of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake or stronger. Then, once breaks in the pipeline are located, the damaged sections can be isolated and other valves can be opened to restore the flow of water to other parts of the City without losing any more.

Mayor takes AWSS away from SF Fire Department, voters pass bond measure

In 2010, two significant things occurred. First was then-SF Mayor Gavin Newsom transferring the responsibility for the AWSS from the SFFD to the SF Public Utilities Commission, in order to save about $3.5 million in the SFFD's budget at a time when the economy was sputtering, and, secondly, city voters passed a $412 million bond measure to pay for earthquake preparedness measures.

Newsom used an executive order to facilitate an "interdepartmental transfer," to move the AWSS from the fire department over to the SFPUC, despite the objections of the city's fire chief and fire commission.

After the transfer, it took five years for the SFFD and SFPUC to agree on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which spells out which department is responsible for various duties, including opening and closing gate valves and inspecting fire hydrants.

According to retired SF Fire Department Assistant Deputy Chief Tom Doudiet, who worked on the MOU, the SFPUC took its time with the MOU because it was reluctant to put anything into writing.

The $412.3 million bond measure for earthquake preparedness was passed by San Francisco voters in 2010 to improve deteriorating pipes, hydrants, reservoirs, water cisterns and pumps built after the 1906 earthquake; also to improve neighborhood fire stations; and replace the seismically-unsafe emergency command center with an earthquake-safe building.

Although the bond language does not specifically say the money would be used to expand the AWSS, in the Voter's Guide from that year a statement signed by the SF Democratic Party and paid for by the SF Fire Fighters PCA and the SF Earthquake and Disaster Response Plan, urged voters to vote "yes" because the bond measure "expands and strengthens our network of cisterns and pipes to ensure that residents throughout the city have an emergency water supply for fire protection … and will ensure that a high-pressure water supply is available to fight fires and save lives in large buildings."

Between 2010 and 2012, the SFPUC posted maps on its website clearly showing proposed extensions of the AWSS into the Outer Richmond District, via California Street, and then crossing Golden Gate Park into the Outer Sunset District, where there are connections to the Sunset Reservoir and Lake Merced.

The maps also show proposed extensions running from Ocean Avenue to Alemany Boulevard and then along Geneva and Silver avenues out to the University Mound Reservoir, which would be used to service parts of supervisorial districts 9, 10 and 11, with the exception of Visitacion Valley.

In 2014 another $400 million bond was passed to improve or replace deteriorating cisterns, pipes tunnels and related facilities to ensure firefighters have a reliable high-pressure water supply for fires; to improve and/or replace neighborhood fire and police stations; and replace seismically-unsafe police and medical examiner facilities with earthquake-safe buildings.

By this time, however, SFPUC maps showing the previously proposed AWSS extensions had been removed, but proposals to build an additional 30 water cisterns across the outlying areas of the City were included, along with an alternative plan to fight fires after a major earthquake; a "Flexible Water Supply System" plan that was proposed and rejected. After that, a "potable co-benefits" pipeline was proposed for the Sunset and the Richmond Districts, using water from the Sunset Reservoir in an emergency. That is part of the plan currently being developed.

There are three notable benefits to the use of cisterns: they are much cheaper to build than AWSS pipelines, require little or no maintenance, and the water is immediately available for fighting fires that start right after an earthquake.

But there are also major drawbacks to the use of cisterns. Once a cistern is empty it is no longer useful as it must be filled manually from outside sources. Also, it requires the use of a fire engine to pump the water out for short distances, up to half a mile. But, if the fire is more than a half mile or so from the fire, two fire engines are required to tap a single cistern.

There are 42 fire engines in San Francisco's fire-fighting fleet, including three in the Richmond and three in the Sunset. Cisterns range from 10,000 gallons to 35,000 gallons. On average, a fire engine at the scene of a fire will pump between1,000 and 1,500 gallons of water a minute.

According to Doudiet, if a firestorm envelops a neighborhood the only way to stop it is to put up a wall of water, a water curtain, to absorb the heat and knock down the flames. Last-ditch stands like that usually occur on wide streets or boulevards.

SFPUC unveils doomed flex hose system; no plans for southern neighborhoods

About the time the MOU was being signed, the SFPUC, on the advice of its paid consultant, unveiled a plan to supplant the AWSS in unprotected areas of the city. The plan was called the Flexible Water Supply System (FWSS) and entailed about 15 miles of 12-inch flexible hose being stored at the Sunset and University Mound reservoirs for emergency water distribution. The University Mound Reservoir contains 140 million gallons of water, but only the North Reservoir was seismically upgraded, in 2010.

David Briggs, the local and regional water system manager for the SFPUC at the time, testified during a Board of Supervisor's Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing on April 7, 2016, about the SFPUC's confidence in the untested system.

"Well, I think it is a solution that's sustainable, so it may be permanent," Briggs said.

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the hearing because the SFPUC was intending to scrap parts for the AWSS to save money, so the agency would not have to pay rent for a lot to store the materials. The SFPUC said it had enough spare parts for repairs of the AWSS.

The flexible hose plan would have stored up to 15 miles of 12-inch flexible hose at the Sunset and University Mound reservoirs. After a large earthquake, volunteers from the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) were going to be responsible for distributing the flex hose along prescribed routes.

But critics said untrained volunteers would face insurmountable obstructions after a disaster, including earthquake debris in the roadways and the possibility of having to work in pitch-black darkness. As well, the flex pipe would have had to been hooked up to numerous pipes running underground on transit-critical roadways.

The unwieldy FWSS was abandoned sometime within the last year, and a new plan recently emerged for the west side of the city, the "Potable Co-benefits" plan.

There are no plans at this time for providing emergency firefighting pipelines like the AWSS to feed water into neighborhoods located in the southernmost part of the city.

Critics question latest PUC post-earthquake proposal

The PUC's current Potable Co-benefits plan has caused some skepticism amongst firefighting experts and politicians.

The plan would run a reinforced pipe from the Sunset Reservoir westward on Ortega Street to 41st Avenue, where it would turn north through Golden Gate Park to Cabrillo Street, and then turn east to 29th Avenue.

According to retired Assistant Deputy Chief Doudiet, the plan is suspect because it does not use strengthened AWSS pipe joints, and the loss of pressure along the line if lots of water is required in the Sunset, and may result in too little pressure to fight fires in the Richmond. Firefighters generally need 60 p.s.i. of water pressure for effective firefighting. He said each AWSS hydrant on a properly designed loop in the outer Richmond and Sunset districts can replace four or five fire engines.

Doudiet also said it is bad city policy to use the city's fresh water for firefighting when it could be in short supply after a disaster.

An average three-inch firefighting hose loses about five pounds of pressure, due to resistance, for every 50 feet of hose deployed. So, for a fire 500 feet from the water main, there would be a drop of 50 pounds per square inch of pressure. As well, hose resistance knocks off another 5 psi per 12 feet of elevation.

With the current proposal, getting adequate water pressure from Cabrillo Street to elevated areas, like the Veterans Affairs (VA) center on Clement Street and 42nd Avenue, might be difficult. Fire engines could be used to boost pressure if they are available.

"What they would like to do is do a duel potable water system, which has not been tested," Richmond District Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. "I feel like the AWSS has been tested, through the 1989 earthquake. So, I'm a little cautious because the idea that (the SFPUC) presented to us was running this potable line from the reservoir in the Sunset all the way over into the Richmond … is a system that has not been tested here.

"You can imagine, with all of our homes in the Richmond being built in the early 1900s, and all-wood frames, and we're so close to each other here, that personally I want the best water system possible for the Richmond District, so that I'm assured that if there is an earthquake that we have it within our capability of actually just hooking a hose up and getting a high-pressure water system at our fingertips to put out the fires."

Fewer acknowledged that the AWSS is more expensive than the alternative being proposed, but said there is little choice in the matter.

"It's expensive, but everything's expensive, right? That should not deter the City from actually ensuring that our residents out here in the Richmond are safe during a fire," she said. "I know that it's expensive but the cost of lives and homes and damage and destruction is way more expensive. So, I like to err on the side of caution."

Sunset District Supervisor Katy Tang, on the other hand, said she has researched the Potable Co-benefits pipeline and has confidence in it.

"The ultimate goal for our district and the City is to provide the infrastructure necessary to allow for any neighborhood to have the most resilient system in place for fighting fires in the event of a major disaster," Tang said. "The west side of town historically did not have enough protection infrastructure. However, over the last several years, the City has invested in major projects that will significantly improve the level of protection for our Sunset residents. The potable co-benefits pipelines have been shown by the SFPUC and its engineering partner to provide the same level of protection as the AWSS, but at a much lower cost."

The total cost of the potable co-benefits pipeline running from the Sunset Reservoir to the Richmond is estimated at $52 million, of which only $8 million is funded at this time, according to David Myerson of the SFPUC.

Suzanne Gautier, a spokesperson for the SFPUC, said all of the PUC's projects are reviewed by a management-oversight committee, which is comprised of the PUC's general manager, Harlan K. Kelly Jr., assistant general manager Steven Ritchie, SFFD Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and the SF Department of Public Work's Director Mohammed Nuru.

Gautier says they will all look over various options, including the Potable Co-benefits plan, before anything is committed.

"It is my understanding that there is a technical memorandum currently being written and to be reviewed and once it's completed, evaluating all of these options and including the potable co-benefits pipeline," Gautier said. "So, until that memorandum is completed by an outside technical expert and additional information is provided and is part of the analysis, there would have to be a thorough analysis of all of those options, and that is currently underway."

The Sunset Reservoir was built in 1938 and holds about 177 million gallons of water, about half in each of the reservoirs' two concrete basins. San Francisco residents use about 65 million gallons of water a day.

The reservoir's North Basin was structurally reinforced, at a cost of $62 million, in 2010. Concrete pilings were driven into the hillside to stabilize the soil and 33-foot-tall pillars holding up the roof were seismically reinforced.

According to the geotechnical investigation at the site, the soils around the reservoir "could be susceptible to significant strength loss during a major earthquake."

It is unclear why the South Basin was not reinforced or if it is in danger of failing due to a large earthquake. It is also unclear if there is a gate valve between the two basins to protect the water in the North Basin in the case of a failure at the South Basin.

Some city supervisors whose districts are unprotected by the AWSS, including District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, did not respond to requests for comment as of presstime.

As for what the current SFFD administration thinks about the co-benefits plan, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White was not available for comment, however, on her behalf Lt. Jonathan Baxter responded, saying: "The SFFD continues to collaborate with the SFPUC to enhance, strengthen and add further redundancy to our fire suppression systems."

At SF Fire Commission meetings during the past year, there has been scant mention of the AWSS from the fire department's chief and administrative divisions.

Use of fresh water for firefighting criticized, PUC rejects AWSS extension's price tag

The SF Water Department, a part of the SFPUC, is currently strengthening the 167 miles of pipes and infrastructure that brings water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco taps. The overall plan is called the Water Supply Improvement Program (WSIP). The goal of WSIP is to "restore facilities to meet average-day demand of up to 300-million gallons a day within 30 days after a major earthquake."

By leveraging the city's fresh water supply and using water mains from the city's domestic-water supply, the SFPUC is banking on the structural integrity of the system to function for firefighting purposes after a major disaster.

But, firefighting experts say the plan is a recipe for disaster because the city's domestic water distribution system is not seismically reinforced like the AWSS, it cannot use unlimited amounts of saltwater for firefighting, and post-earthquake fires could deplete the city's emergency drinking water supply, causing disease and other problems.

Leaders at the SFPUC reportedly balked at the estimated $600-$650 million cost to expand the AWSS to protect the city's western and southern neighborhoods. By using the city's water pipes, the SFPUC saves money because domestic water pipes are significantly cheaper to construct.

According to a report from AECOM, a private consulting firm hired by the SFPUC, each mile of AWSS pipe costs about $19 million to install, versus approximately $3.7 million a mile for domestic water pipes. The domestic water pipes have "push on" seals between the joints, while the AWSS uses steel tie rods to help ensure the joints stay together after massive shaking. As well, fire hydrants are built to stronger specifications to withstand the extreme pressures that can be built up with the AWSS.

If the AWSS pipeline has no breaks, or the motorized valves do their job of isolating broken segments, then high-pressure water for fire suppression will be immediately available to firefighters. Furthermore, the seawater supply is unlimited.

A fully functioning AWSS would free up firefighters to fight fires and perform rescue missions in collapsed buildings.

At a March 15, 2017 meeting of the SF Board of Supervisors' Government Audit and Oversight Committee, Supervisor Aaron Peskin asked if a cost-benefit analysis was done comparing the co-benefits pipeline system to extending the AWSS out into the west side areas.

A consultant with AECOM, Anne Symonds, said the initial study did include looking at the AWSS extension into these areas; however, the PUC determined it would be too expensive.

"The total capital cost for that alternative was in the order of $600 million, something like that," Symonds told the committee members. "When we presented that to the SFPUC they said, 'that's not going to happen,'" to extend the AWSS throughout the entire city. "So, our management and technical teams recommended that we look at options that would find that nexus of where the potable system also needs to be improved. So this is an area where we can do both things with one project."

"Maybe," Peskin responded. "You're pioneering uncharted waters. I think we should really have a real policy conversation about whether or not we should bite the bullet and talk about a half billion dollar investment. Should we bite the bullet and start doing more AWSS expansions further to the west? This has been an ongoing expensive conversation for a century. I would like to second-guess whether we should be going down the co-benefit road."

Fewer said that after the March meeting she sought an independent third-party analysis of the cost to expand the AWSS system because she is not confident about previous cost estimates. She expects to get results in November.

"We called for an independent report on the water system and what the alternatives (are) and a cost analysis, to share the findings," Fewer said.

"We felt that it was not an adequate analysis, so we wanted to get an independent opinion," she said.

Fewer also said she would support including money for further extensions of the AWSS in a bond measure that the SFPUC is considering for the 2020 ballot.

Thomas Pendergast is a freelance reporter in San Francisco.

Paul Kozakiewicz, editor of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers, contributed to this report.

November 2017

Westside “Highly Vulnerable” Fireman Warns

As a 60-year resident of the Richmond District and a 32-year veteran of the SF Fire Department (SFFD), I have long been aware that the Outer Richmond and Sunset districts, with their hundreds of blocks of wood-frame buildings, will be highly vulnerable to fire immediately following the next great Bay Area earthquake.

My message: There will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD to use in these neighborhoods for fighting fires after the “big one” hits.”

 

For many years while a member of the fire department, and for several years since my retirement in 2011, I have attempted, with little success, to alert city officials, including members of the SF Board of Supervisors and staff in the mayor’s office. My message: There will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD to use in these neighborhoods for fighting fires after the “big one” hits.

Why is this so? There are two kinds of fire hydrants in San Francisco, the 9,000 small white low-pressure hydrants supplied by the same domestic water mains that supply water to every building in the City and the 1,600 larger hydrants with red, blue or black tops, supplied by the high-pressure mains of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS). This system was installed in the years following the 1906 earthquake and fire, mainly in the areas of the City that had been built up by 1913. Thus, it doesn’t exist west of 12th Avenue in the Richmond, west of 19th Avenue in the Sunset or in the city’s southern neighborhoods.

The seismically robust mains of the high-pressure hydrant system were built to withstand the effects of ground movement during an earthquake, whereas the domestic water supply that supplies both the low-pressure hydrants, as well as all of the city’s buildings, are not as seismically resistant.

These domestic mains, and many thousands of service connection water pipes leading from the mains into buildings, will break during a major seismic event. The result will be that the SFFD will have little or no water available from the low-pressure hydrants, just as happened in 1906.

In 15 neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the Bayview Heights, Crocker Amazon, Excelsior, Ingleside, Little Hollywood, Merced Manor, Mission Terrace, Oceanview, Outer Mission, Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, Parkside, Portola, Sea Cliff, Stonestown and Sunnyside, there are no high-pressure hydrants, so how will SFFD firefighters stop the spread of fire from building to building and, soon thereafter, from block to block? The simple answer is that they won’t. Conflagrations (fire storms), as occurred in 1906, will result.

How do we know there will be any fires?

In addition to water service pipes going into every building in San Francisco, there are also natural gas pipes. Just as most of our domestic water mains are more than 100 years old, so are the gas pipes in many of these buildings. As we were shown in the Marina District in 1989, when building structures are disrupted, and sometimes collapse during an earthquake, ruptured gas lines are an explosive source of building fires. Assuming that even one building in 1,000 develops an internal gas leak during an earthquake (there are approximately 56 residential buildings on an average block in the Richmond and the Sunset), let’s calculate the potential: there are about 225 square blocks in the Outer Richmond and about 525 blocks in the Outer Sunset – that is a total of 750 blocks times 56 buildings per block equals 42,000 buildings. If we assume one gas leak per 1,000 buildings, there could be 42 simultaneous fires, in wood frame buildings fed by natural gas leaks. Again, there will be no water in the existing low-pressure hydrants to fight these fires.

By the way, the 75,000 gallon cisterns that the City recently added to the Sunset (and a few in the Richmond) are good adjuncts to high-pressure hydrants, but they alone will not stop the fires following a large earthquake. Unless the use of water from a cistern to fight fires is very close to the fire, it would require two engines per cistern for firefighting, one at the cistern and one at the scene of the fire.

There are only 44 fire engines in San Francisco and only six engines assigned to cover both the outer Richmond and Sunset districts, possibly only enough to fight three fires using water from cisterns on the west side, and leaving perhaps as many as 39 fires burning unchecked.

Individual building fires that are not fought, especially in blocks of wood frame buildings with no space between them, could very soon lead to entire blocks on fire. The build-up of heat from many buildings burning simultaneously results in fire spreading from block to block by radiated heat, and the massive amounts of super-heated air rising creates a draft similar to a howling windstorm (eye-witness accounts of the fires after the 1906 earthquake vividly describe this process).

The entire southern and western parts of the city could be destroyed by fire in a single day following a major earthquake. The point here is that unless the fire department has a ready source of water in a stable, high-pressure, high-volume hydrant system to use to fight individual small fires immediately after a large earthquake, entire neighborhoods will be destroyed.

As difficult as it is to consider, people trapped in collapsed buildings that are in the path of a conflagration are not likely to be rescued before they, too, are consumed by the flames.

In 2010 and again in 2014, San Francisco voters approved the so-called Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) Bonds. Literature published in support of the ballot propositions in the Voter’s Guide by the SF Chamber of Commerce and SF Democratic Party implied the AWSS extensions of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts were going to be funded by these and subsequent bonds.

Following the passage of the 2014 ESER bond measure, however, a strange thing occurred. In spite of the published reports and recommendations of the engineering firm the City hired to study fire protection issues, the SF Water Department (an arm of the SF Public Utilities Commission) clearly signaled that it no longer intended to go forward with the extension of this hydrant system into our neighborhoods after all.

This change in plans became apparent when they moved to auction off, for scrap metal prices, millions of dollars worth of materials and parts that the City had stored for the purpose of repairing and extending the high-pressure hydrant system. The water department’s actual intent then became clear: despite what voters had been led to believe, the water department now has absolutely no intention of actually extending the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods.

In April 2016, SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee, held a hearing to determine whether the auctioning off of these parts by the water department made sense, in view of the city’s publication, just before the 2014 bond issue, of maps showing the proposed extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts and other neighborhoods.

Representatives of the water and fire departments were asked to explain to the supervisors why, if they intended to extend the system into currently unserved neighborhoods, they would be selling off the necessary parts as scrap metal.

The answer given by both a water department manager and a uniformed member of the SF Fire Department’s command staff was that they now believed that these hydrants were not needed.

Instead, they said, they had discovered that they could purchase 15 miles of large diameter hoses that could be dropped from the back of flatbed trucks, as needed, following a major earthquake. This, they stated, would enable the fire department to fight the expected fires and save those neighborhoods, without high-pressure hydrants, from being destroyed by conflagrations.

To say that this bizarre scheme defies common sense is an extreme understatement:

• They had no experience using this type of hose, even in daytime simulations under optimum conditions;

• They had no plan for where the hose and these trucks would be stored;

• They had no plan for who would drive the trucks (later, it was proposed the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) volunteers would do the job);

• They proposed using capital bond money to purchase the hose, despite the legality of doing so;

• They had no explanation as to how the trucks would maneuver around earthquake debris in the streets, possibly in total darkness and without electricity;

• They could not explain how incipient fires could be fought without any water, nor who would be rescuing people trapped in damaged buildings, while firefighters were occupied setting up and filling hose with water;

• They had no explanation as to how they would avoid having these same huge hoses overrun by the conflagrations that would have developed from the merging of the many incipient fires that would be left unchecked during the hours that all this elaborate process was taking place.

Obviously, the large-diameter hose premise put forth by the water department, and which the uniformed SFFD command staff member clearly and heartily endorsed, was an absurdly adolescent exercise in trying to cover their folly in abandoning the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods where it has never been installed.

Fortunately, the flexible hose scheme has been abandoned, at least for the time being.

There is no dependable high-pressure and high-volume source of emergency water for post-earthquake firefighting in the outer neighborhoods, and therefore it is entirely accurate to say: The SFFD has no viable plan for extinguishing post-earthquake fires in outlying areas of the City. As it stands now, 15 neighborhoods are exposed and will very likely be destroyed by fire following the next big Bay Area earthquake, and, neither the water department nor the fire department has any coherent plans to mitigate this situation!

If this intolerable level of official negligence on the part of the water an fire departments is not corrected, you and I and most of our neighbors will very probably lose our homes and businesses to fires after a big earthquake.

After all has been destroyed, the blame will be squarely on the management of water and fire department officials. The best that can be said for these “public servants” is that they are guilty of gross professional incompetence; the worst is that their refusal to address this issue borders on criminal negligence.

If they will not live up to their professional responsibilities, they must be relieved of their duties and replaced with competent people who will.

Our district supervisors and the mayor must be put on notice that the residents of the city’s southern and western districts will no longer tolerate this egregious indifference to our personal safety and the safety of our homes and businesses. Let them know that we rightfully expect the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods.

Our homes, businesses and the safety of our families will someday depend on it.

Thomas W. Doudiet is a retired assistant deputy chief with the SF Fire Department.

November 2017