Wildfires: Did low water pressure hinder the fight?

Residents of Yorba Linda, where fire destroyed 118 homes, had complained for years of poor water pressure, a problem that may have made it more difficult for firefighters to beat back the weekend blaze that tore through the upscale community.

In Sylmar, where about 500 mobile homes burned to the ground, fire officials said they were investigating reports of lack of water pressure there. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power supplies water to the Oakridge Mobile Home Park property line, but inside, the water system belongs to the park.

In both areas, residents and some officials were openly discussing whether the lack of water pressure complicated the already monumental task that firefighters faced.

Fire officials in Sylmar are checking to see if their department had inspected the mobile home park hydrants as required in the last year, said Craig Fry, assistant fire marshal for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he was at the mobile home park after the fire burned through on Saturday, and firefighters told him that hydrants had stopped working and they were forced to use their water tenders instead.

"We would have had a fair shot if the pressure hadn't gone down," said Battalion Chief Fred Mathis, as he sat in his firetruck in the mobile home park Saturday.

A representative of the company that owns the park, Continental Mobile Housing, said he was busy at Oakridge and did not have time to talk.

Farther south, Ken Vecchiarelli, assistant general manager of the Yorba Linda Water District, said its hydrant system was built to fight fires involving a few houses, not a firestorm.

"This was the type of thing any system in any community was not designed for," he said.

At a packed meeting at Yorba Linda City Hall on Tuesday night, residents, many of whose homes had burned, expressed anger.

"I was told when they [firefighters] got to the top of our street, they turned back because there was no water pressure," said Diane Manista, whose house burned down in the hard-hit neighborhood of Hidden Hills.

"The fire hydrant in front of our house has a bag on it and wasn't even working. It's beyond words."

Water district officials acknowledged a lack of water pressure and were investigating the problem.

Orange County Fire Authority Batallion Chief Kris Concepcion said Manista's neighborhood did go without water in the hydrants, but firefighters were able to overcome the problem with fire tenders that carry water.

"Did it hamper firefighting? Not really," he said.

"Did additional homes burn as a result? That's hard to say."

But in the Vista Bel Aire subdivision of Yorba Linda, situated at the top of a hill against the open brush of Chino Hills State Park, several residents said that for years they have been phoning in complaints to the water district about poor pressure.

One man said he had had spent thousands of dollars to buy a pump to increase water flow from his faucets, hoses and shower heads.

And in one neighborhood that was evacuated Saturday, at least 125 homeowners have been battling low water pressure for several years, according to East Lake Village Community Assn. General Manager Susan Janowicz.

"Some people couldn't even take a shower and wash their dishes at the same time," she said.

"They were trying to water their lawns and not all the sprinklers would pop up."

The association last year persuaded the water district to add new pipelines and valves that will increase pressure, she said. But they're still waiting.

Fire captains also spoke about widespread water pressure problems Saturday. Orange County Fire Capt. Bill Lockhart said his crew hooked up to a hydrant on Fairmont Boulevard about 5 p.m. but no water came out. The crew struck water at the next available hydrant.

"It delayed things a bit, but we were able to make it happen," he said.

Dave Rosenberger, a Yorba Linda community college teacher who unsuccessfully ran for the water district board of directors, said he had often heard complaints of low pressure while campaigning door to door this fall.

He questioned what officials had been doing to anticipate the water demands of a wildfire.

"What was their preparedness plan out there?" he asked. "If I was a resident and my house had been destroyed, and I was going to the water board today, I would be a little bit agitated, a little bit troubled."

Lee Macpherson, coordinator of the Fire and Emergency Technology Department at El Camino College, said that when so many hydrants are opened, it's similar to when a family has turned on the dishwasher, the sprinklers and the washing machine and then someone jumps in the shower: Pressure will dwindle.

Lack of water pressure has hindered efforts to extinguish other fires, such as the blaze that tore through two city blocks at the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot in June, destroying the "King Kong" tour and burning movie sets.

When hundreds of homes in Laguna Beach burned to the ground in 1993 -- one of Orange County's worst fires -- the problem was never a shortage of water, but rather the lack of water pressure and a system not designed for such a huge blaze.

Fry, the assistant Los Angeles fire marshal, said the Sylmar mobile home park hydrant system was designed to fight house fires, not a wildfire.

"Open all the hydrants and there's going to be a significant drop in pressure," he said.

Battalion Chief Corey Creasey of the Glendale Fire Department, who was called to the blaze, said that as his five engines were fighting the fire, they heard radio calls that they needed to conserve water.

The water supply stopped around 5 a.m., he said.

"The system isn't designed to take 50 engines," Creasey said.

Gottlieb and Barboza are Times staff writers.

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