Lack of water poses 'tricky' challenge for rural NY firefighters

Rural fire departments routinely make contact with homeowners who have water sources on their land to see if an agreement can be set up in advance for access


Jolene Cleaver
Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.

ONEIDA COUNTY, NY — Firefighters face additional challenges when battling blazes in rural areas, but one local fire chief says there's something some residents can do to better protect themselves and their neighbors.

"If homeowners have ponds ... if they could grant firefighters access" that would be helpful, said Barneveld Fire Chief Kevin Kalk.

That's because finding an adequate water supply in rural areas — miles away from the nearest fire hydrant — can be tricky. It can add precious minutes to the time it takes firefighters to attack a structure fire.

This is especially true in the winter.

"Chainsawing a hole in a frozen pond can eat up three to four minutes," Kalk said, reflecting on some of the fires they faced in recent months.

Oneida County Director of Emergency Services Kevin Revere said large portions of Oneida County have the benefit of municipal water systems, but "there are significant chunks that don't," such as Barneveld and New London.

"Rural firefighters have unique challenges," he said. " ... When you get out in the rural areas, it's tricky."

At rural sites, Kalk said, the firefighters must either draw water from nearby creeks and ponds, or truck the water in on tanker trucks from the next nearest source.

During an April 3 fire on state Route 365 in Trenton, for example, firefighters relied on one existing hydrant in the community of Maplevale and 14 tankers.

Each tanker could hold between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of water, but that water goes quickly when sprayed by hoses that can push out hundreds of gallons at full blast, Kalk said. The trucks drove a 3.5 mile loop back and forth from the hydrant to the fire, which ultimately claimed three structures.

"... While en route crews under the command of Chief Kevin Kalk were advised that the fire was spreading to two additional structures due to the wind. Crews arrived on scene and began simultaneously conducting fire ground operations on all three structures," reads an official report of the fire. "Crews were forced from the structure and had to change over to a defensive operation. Due to high winds a grass fire started in the fields across from the farm ... Approximately 5-10 acres were burned in the grass fire..."

Because of the difficulty finding water sources, rural fire departments routinely make contact with homeowners who have water sources on their land to see if an agreement can be set up in advance for access in the event a fire breaks out in that vicinity, Kalk said.

More water district improvements also "would be great" if feasible, he said.

Fire officials note there are a few dry hydrants around the area, but an exact number was not readily available. A dry hydrant is a non-pressurized pipe system permanently installed in existing lakes, ponds and streams that provides a suction supply of water to a fire department tank truck.

Installing dry hydrants costs money, but rural departments can apply for certain state grants from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Soil & Water Conservation to fund rural dry hydrant programs, says Chet Lasell, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

According to information from the DEC, the Volunteer Fire Assistance grant program is a 50/50 matching funds program (up to $1,500) available to rural fire companies to buy equipment like portable backpack pumps, Nomex protective clothing, hand tools, hard hats, hose, portable radios and dry hydrants.

In 1999, the Oneida County Soil and Water Conservation District participated in a dry hydrant grant project, and was able to install 12 dry hydrants. However, that program has long since expired, staff said this week.

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©2019 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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