Supes: Westside Fire Readiness a “State of Urgency”

fire after SF earthquake 1906
On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 am, one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history left San Francisco in ruins. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake and the fires that it caused destroyed 80 per cent of the city, killed over 3,000 people and left another 250,000 homeless — 62.5 percent of the population at that time.
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

Good news for San Francisco! The Board of Supervisors has just unanimously approved on November 19, 2019 a resolution declaring that a “State of Urgency” exists because there is no plan to protect the entire city from fires following a major earthquake.

The legislation authored by Supervisor Gordon Mar resolved “That the Board of Supervisors hereby declares a State of Urgency to rapidly expand the City’s Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS) to protect all neighborhoods in the event of a major earthquake and fire, given that the vulnerability of the City poses a serious and urgent threat to the well-being of San Francisco and the safety of its inhabitants and environment.”

 High Pressure hydrants by district

Supervisor Mar said “The current pace is not enough and we must expedite the expansion of this life saving infrastructure across the City.”

His resolution is in response to the July 17, 2019 Civil Grand Jury report that identified large parts of the City, particularly in the western and southern districts, that were not covered by the seismically safe, high-pressure Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which provides excellent firefighting protection.

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City leaders have known about this deficiency for decades, but have yet to develop concrete plans or a timeline to provide a robust emergency firefighting water supply for all neighborhoods.”

The press release for this report stated “City leaders have known about this deficiency for decades, but have yet to develop concrete plans or a timeline to provide a robust emergency firefighting water supply for all neighborhoods.”

Now, the Board of Supervisors has responded by urging City departments to develop a comprehensive action plan with funding identified for expanding the multi-sourced EFWS, to cover the entire City by June 30, 2034. The Board also urges the City to provide them with consolidated annual reports beginning on June 30, 2020 on the state of the EFWS preparedness.

Let us hope that the decades-old deficiency will finally be corrected.

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

December 2019

A CALL TO ACTION IS REQUIRED

Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

The Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) just issued a report to the City entitled: Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System. The title says it all.

fire engulfs homes in Northern California

“Now” means now, as the report cites the experts’ prediction that a magnitude 6.0 earthquake is due before 2043 to hit the Bay Area with a probability of 98%. “Aggressively expand” our high-pressure water system reminds us that the entire City is still not protected with a water delivery system able to suppress post-earthquake fires. The last time there was any expansion of the underground Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) was through a 1986 bond promoted by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Since then, AWSS coverage to the western and southern parts of the City has stopped, putting 15 neighborhoods in jeopardy of uncontrollable seismic fires.

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Instead of the Mayor directing departments to act now, the response is to conduct more studies before decisions are made, to kick the can down the road ...”

Since the great fire of 1906, we have known exactly what to do to fight cataclysmic fires after a big earthquake: build a network of independent high-pressure pipes and hydrants and supply the system with unlimited amounts of non-potable water. The auxiliary system is dedicated exclusively to fire suppression. San Francisco is the only City in the United States that has this unique protection - or that needs it because we are next to three faults AND our City has access to unlimited water on three sides.

The Mayor and the City departments continually refuse to acknowledge that fires that follow earthquakes are just as dangerous to the future of San Francisco as are sea level rise and climate change. Also, they are in lockstep with each other to avoid commitment to covering the entire City with adequate auxiliary infrastructure using non-potable water for fire protection as their top priority. The City’s new plan is to use Sunset Reservoir’s drinking water to fight fires in the Sunset and Richmond districts, as if that limited amount of water will be sufficient to fight all the simultaneous conflagrations after the earthquake. Then the SFPUC expects to be able to refill the reservoir in 24 hours with Hetch Hetchy water delivered from 167 miles away.

The Mayor responded to the CGJ Recommendation #2 - to protect the entire City within 15 years with an emergency water system plan specifying funding sources - by stating “committing to entirely funding a single program out of context and without regard for the trade-offs of that commitment would be out of step with the City’s longstanding and highly regarded capital planning process and likely create significant vulnerabilities elsewhere in the portfolio.” What trade-off project could be more important than ensuring that the City is not overwhelmed by massive conflagrations after an earthquake?

The Mayor’s response to the CGJ Recommendation #1 - to have the City present a detailed plan by 12/31/20 to the Board of Supervisors - was to push back the timeline to 12/31/21 saying “The City cannot discuss the project and timeline until the [G.O. Bond] ESER 2020 plan passes.” Presumably if the voters do not pass the bond, the detailed plan to ensure that the City is well prepared to fight fires will be in jeopardy. This is the kind of bureaucratic action and limited thinking that has delayed the AWSS expansion for the past 33 years. There is no creative financing beyond asking the taxpayers for the money.

Instead of the Mayor directing departments to act now, the response is to conduct more studies before decisions are made, to kick the can down the road, and to fit the projects into the next 10 year capital plan, thereby delaying AWSS planning until December 2021. Then, we have to wait in line for the AWSS number to come up for funding through G.O. bonds. We already know how, what, and where to build the pipeline network; we just need the leadership to explore state and federal funding sources to deliver completed citywide projects without more delays.

Mayor Edwin Lee knew how to get things done. On September 27, 2017 he issued Executive Directive 17-02, effective immediately and to remain in place until rescinded, “charging all City Departments to work collaboratively toward faster approvals for housing development projects...” and to develop a plan and implementation outline. He charged departments with submitting to him by December 1, 2017 a plan outlining the needed process improvement measures. He demanded action in 65 days after issuing the order and that included the Thanksgiving holidays.

The Mayor Lee level of leadership is what the Civil Grand Jury is asking for. I remind everyone that we put a man on the moon in ten years after President Kennedy made that a goal. We should not have to wait until 2049 before we finish building out a citywide plumbing network with three non-potable water pump stations.

The City is in grave danger of facing a major earthquake with fires without the means to save lives and property. We have wasted valuable time over the past 33 years not preparing for this certainty. A call to action is required now. Tell Mayor London Breed to provide the leadership expected of her to protect the City now, by issuing an Executive Directive to charge all City Departments to work collaboratively to submit to her by December 31, 2019 a plan, funding sources, and implementation outline for project completion by 2030, making the AWSS expansion with unlimited water the City’s top priority. No more excuses!

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

October 2019

CITY STILL NOT PREPARED FOR THE BIG EARTHQUAKE!

Sunset District
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

After all the studies, reports, and discussions at numerous City agencies, commissions, and boards about getting ready for the Big One, San Francisco is still not prepared to deal with fires citywide following a major earthquake. The City has not committed to securing inexhaustible supplies of water to fight these fires. Really, the only way to ensure the City has unlimited water to fight blazes after an earthquake is to build additional pump stations to pull in water from the ocean and bay.

The independent auxiliary water system (AWSS) consists of underground pipelines and hydrants to deliver non-potable water to firefighters. Developed 105 years ago, the system produces high pressure volumes of water to suppress fires. Instead of expanding the coverage of the system to protect the entire City, the SFPUC has decided to “reinvent the wheel” by changing to a system that uses a limited source - our drinking water - for firefighting.

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SFPUC is hoping the Sunset Reservoir can be refilled 24 hours after an earthquake with Hetch Hetchy water from 167 miles away and piped up the peninsula along side of the San Andres fault... The ravages of fire will continue unless suppressed by water, lots and lots of water, when and where it is needed.”

It is time to demand that the City administrators and department heads do their job to bring the AWSS into every neighborhood in the City supplied with non-potable sources of water. Also, the policy setters and decision makers must prioritize completing the system now. They have already created a $37 BILLION ten year Capital Plan for 2020-2029 for all kinds of City improvements, without including a dime for expanding the original AWSS citywide. The capital funding priorities do not fully safeguard the City from post-earthquake fires.

The earthquake will break water connections to the little white hydrants on street corners, and break gas lines to wood frame buildings causing many simultaneous neighborhood fires. The Fire Department must not be restricted in suppressing fires due to a limited supply of water! But the SFPUC will do just that with their new plan to “protect” the Sunset and Richmond Districts by using the potable water in the Sunset Reservoir. There is not even a proposal on the drawing board for expanding fire protection into the southern parts of the City over to the Bayview, much less a timeline for completing it.

SFPUC is hoping the Sunset Reservoir can be refilled 24 hours after an earthquake with Hetch Hetchy water from 167 miles away and piped up the peninsula along side of the San Andres fault. Even if the water were to make it up to the City, there still is no backup plan to provide redundant sources of water during the time the reservoir is empty waiting to be filled, or being repaired. The ravages of fire will continue unless suppressed by water, lots and lots of water, when and where it is needed.

Firefighters need a dependable backup plan for water supply into the AWSS to serve every corner of the City. Seawater pumps at the ocean and bay can deliver water into the AWSS pipes and hydrants for as long as there is a fire to extinguish.

To understand what firefighters will be facing after an earthquake, look at the recent massive fire at Geary and Parker Streets after the gas explosion. It was only under control after three hours of firefighting. Then imagine an average of 100 or more such fires, many occurring simultaneously in the City. Finally realize there will be an insufficient amount of available water to suppress all the smaller fires before they become large conflagrations, if we approve the SFPUC’s plan to use finite sources of drinking water.

This calamity does not have to happen. As eye witnesses to the worst urban conflagration in U.S. history, voters eagerly approved money for an AWSS system dedicated to only fighting fires so that the 1906 devastation would not be repeated. It was completed in 1913 with 77 miles of pipelines and hydrants. The last expansion of the original system in 1995 brought the AWSS to 135 miles. Since then, there has been no progress in extending this fire protection to the rest of the City. Only smaller piecemeal projects have been built.

Mayor Breed has set a goal of building 5,000 units each year to combat the housing crisis. Since new housing is possible anywhere in the City, it follows that we should also have a matching plan to expand the AWSS to protect these new homes from fires. The Mayor is on record in the March 2018 Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon stating “As we move forward, the kinds of decisions that we make will impact our neighborhoods for generations to come so we have to do the right thing now and focus on quality, especially when we talk about infrastructure.”

Mayor Breed can accomplish both the housing goal and the quality infrastructure to serve neighborhoods by prioritizing extension of the dedicated auxiliary water system to suppress fires with multiple sources of water at this time. These actions can go hand in hand to ensure the new homes will be still be here after an earthquake.

We know what works. We don’t need to experiment with using one pipe to transport drinkable or non-drinkable water at different times. We don’t need to deplete our drinking water supplies when alternative sources exist. Finally, we can’t wait another 25 or 30 years before the entire City is protected from post-earthquake fires.

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

April 2019

Could the City’s Westside Burn After An Earthquake?

Painting of San Francisco fire
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

Westside Burns After Earthquake could easily be the headline after a major earthquake hits the Bay Area, since the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is now abandoning the brilliantly engineered Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) designed immediately after the 1906 fire so that this devastation would not happen again. Very simply, AWSS is a network of pipes and hydrants dedicated to producing high water pressures and high water volumes to fight fires with locally sourced, non-potable water including unlimited seawater. That’s it! And, San Francisco is the only city in the United States with this system created to control conflagrations from becoming uncontrollable firestorms.

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Yes, there are new cisterns in the street with a one-time use of water (not automatically refilled). Cisterns require 2 fire engines to use cistern water - one to pump water out and one to connect to the fire hoses to douse the fires within 1000 feet. There are 6 fire engines stationed in these two districts, so only 3 fires can be fought simultaneously. High pressure hydrants along 19th and 12th Avenues will be used as “fire breaks” to stop the spread of fires by ocean winds, rather than used to protect individual homes. When multiple fires in buildings continue to burn unabated, eventually conflagrations will develop, which then can merge together into a firestorm that could destroy major portions of the city.”

OPTION 12 IS NOT THE ANSWER

WATER! Unlimited amounts of water will put out fires. The SFPUC is ignoring this basic fact by deciding to limit Westside firefighting to only the amount of drinking water stored in the Sunset Reservoir. The SFPUC refuses to expand the tried and true AWSS system for fighting fires in favor of adopting Option 12 from a 2018 engineering report by AECOM. They are now experimenting on how to save lives and property with an unproven system based on a single source of potable water stored in the North Basin of the Sunset Reservoir.

Though the project is called a Potable Auxiliary Water Supply System (PAWSS), the SFPUC is denying us access to developing new, reliable auxiliary water sources, such as pumping seawater from the Pacific Ocean. Their hope is that the reservoir can be refilled after a quake in 24 hours from Hetch Hetchy located 167 miles away, and that the volume of fires will not be greater than the amount of water already stored, or that other fires will not erupt until after the reservoir is refilled.

The potable water in the South Basin is earmarked for domestic water use, but that basin is not seismically reinforced so it may not survive the shaking. Also as part of earthquake preparedness plan, the city has a map showing city reservoirs marked with the path of water inundation into the surrounding neighborhoods should a reservoir fail. The South Basin flooding would cover a large portion of the outer Sunset District down to the ocean.

There are 43,000 wood frame structures currently unprotected from post-earthquake conflagrations in the Richmond and Sunset Districts, and tens of thousands more in 13 other neighborhoods reaching from Seacliff to Parkmerced to the Bayview. At risk, are approximately 500,000 people living in these vulnerable neighborhoods without the AWSS extension.

Option 12 allocates all 90 million gallons of our drinking water from the North Basin to protecting some portions of the Sunset and Richmond districts. Yes, there are new cisterns in the street with a one-time use of water (not automatically refilled). Cisterns require 2 fire engines to use cistern water - one to pump water out and one to connect to the fire hoses to douse the fires within 1000 feet. There are 6 fire engines stationed in these two districts, so only 3 fires can be fought simultaneously. High pressure hydrants along 19th and 12th Avenues will be used as “fire breaks” to stop the spread of fires by ocean winds, rather than used to protect individual homes. When multiple fires in buildings continue to burn unabated, eventually conflagrations will develop, which then can merge together into a firestorm that could destroy major portions of the city.

That is why the city’s Westside will burn.

PUBLIC IS NOT PART OF DECISION MAKING

Decision for Option 12 was made behind closed doors by the Management Oversight Committee (the MOC) made up of 4 people from the SFPUC, Fire Department and Public Works Department. There are no agendas, no minutes, no public notice, and no public comment at their meetings. Once the MOC decides in private what projects they want to pursue, they design GO bonds to finance them, and staff performs “outreach” to inform the public of the decisions made to protect us from post-earthquake fires. The general public is never invited to provide input to recommendations BEFORE (or after) final decisions are made that affect our very lives. The Board of Supervisors may have hearings, but these are convened at their request, not by the SFPUC or Fire Department.

The public believes the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) GO bonds are just for our protection. We have been told this money would expand the AWSS into 15 underserved neighborhoods and upgrade the whole network. However, the current MOC decision is changing the bond use from financing a state-of-the-art firefighting network using unlimited local water, now to paying for replacement of aging SFPUC water transmission mains used to distribute domestic water and calling it PAWSS. The AECOM report even states part of the $20-$30 million cost for the new Sunset water mains will be transferred from water ratepayers to taxpayers. But the taxpayers are seriously short changed on fire protection by paying to replace SFPUC mains.

A VIABLE PLAN FOR THE WHOLE CITY

It has been 112 years since the 1906 great fire, and city departments have still not prioritized a citywide plan to protect all the existing residential neighborhoods from catastrophic fires. We know what needs to be done, having bought 3 engineering reports in 2009, 2014 and 2017. Option 12 is not acceptable and must be abandoned because it does not provide the level of fire protection needed. We have money in ESER GO bonds in 2020 and 2026. What we do not have is the leadership necessary to focus on actually finishing the AWSS infrastructure that will protect all neighborhoods, instead of approving projects piecemeal or district by district .

We should call upon Mayor Breed to provide that missing leadership to:

1) Create a Task Force, reporting to the Mayor’s Office, consisting of DPW engineers, fire professionals, SFPUC managers, and knowledgeable members of the public to participate in developing the infrastructure goals to be achieved for post-earthquake firefighting; the plan for projects that can deliver the goals citywide; identification of financing through ESER bonds and state and federal funding sources for projects; and the timeframes to complete the goals by 2027.

2) Request the Planning Department to increase the citywide Development Impact Fees to include a charge for extending the original AWSS network with identified water sources into new housing developments so that the city can use these funds to perform the work according the AWSS standards.

3) Request the Board of Supervisors to have annual hearings on the progress towards completing the citywide work by 2027, and reporting to the Mayor any circumstances that prevent this goal from being achieved.

The Westside does not have to burn if we act to prioritize finishing preparations now for the next Big One with unlimited supplies of water.

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years. Grateful thanks for the technical expertise provided by Thomas W. Doudiet, retired assistant deputy chief, SF Fire Department.

July 2018

Securing Enough Water After the Earthquake

Ocean Beach
A saltwater pump station to fight fires can be built underground adjacent to the ocean so that the landscape above is not distrubed.
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

If the Bay Area does experience a magnitude 7.8 earthquake for which plans are being formulated, San Francisco will need an unlimited volume of water for firefighting and a sufficient volume of drinkable water to support an estimated daytime city population of 1.3 million people that could be unable to leave the city. As we prepare for the Big One, it is wrong to allocate our clean water to be the primary source of water for fire suppression in the western parts of the city.

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A 7.8 magnitude earthquake is 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake during which there were 27 fires in the city within an hour. How many fires do you suppose the SF Fire Department will have to fight following an earthquake that is 30 times more powerful?”

The SFPUC has decided to fight fires in the Richmond and Sunset Districts using only Hetch Hetchy water from the Sunset Reservoir. Relying on this finite source of water is wrong for three important reasons: (a) it is a limited supply of water that may be insufficient for the number and intensity of fires that will occur; (b) this potable water will be in short supply for drinking and sanitation needs after the fires are out; and (c) there is no guarantee that the emptied reservoir can be refilled in a timely manner because the water transport lines from Hetch Hetchy into the city must cross three major East Bay earthquake faults, and then run for over 25 miles along the San Andreas Fault up the peninsula to the reservoir.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake is 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake during which there were 27 fires in the city within an hour. How many fires do you suppose the SF Fire Department will have to fight following an earthquake that is 30 times more powerful?

We can calculate how insufficient the reservoir water volume actually is if we look at how much water was needed to extinguish the 2014 Mission Bay fire that consumed an entire city block. It was publicly reported that this fire required 15 million gallons of water. With only the north basin of Sunset Reservoir being seismically reinforced, it has just 90 million gallons of water available. This means that there would only be enough water to fight six one-block fires using the Mission Bay fire as a model, without leaving any potable reserves.

In the areas of Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, and Sea Cliff, there are 750 square blocks of wood-frame buildings. Considering the likelihood of breakages in residential gas lines, it is shortsighted to suggest that the city's western side should be restricted in its volume of firefighting water, and prepare for fighting only six one-block fires in a 24 hour period. The SFPUC has not committed to providing any more water sources than the Sunset Reservoir and the water contained in the street cisterns. They hope to replenish these tanks, but getting the water from Hetch Hetchy is not guaranteed.

There is an unlimited source of water in the ocean. The SFPUC should include funding in the 2020 earthquake safety bond for building a pump station in the Richmond District adjacent to the ocean to draw water into the extended high pressure hydrant system known as the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) for firefighting. This will preserve our drinking water for people in separate pipes.

Next, we need another water source for the southern neighborhoods. The SFPUC should include funding in the next safety bond for building a pump station at Lake Merced to access this total of 2 billion gallons of non-drinkable water for backup to firefighting in the 15 under-protected neighborhoods.

One hundred years ago our city engineers had the common sense to build seawater pump stations and a high volume hydrant system in the northern and eastern parts of the city that are still in service today. Is San Francisco still "The City That Knows How", or is San Francisco the City that knew how, but has now forgotten?

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

April 2018

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