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Dry hydrants doomed up to 5 homes, officials say

Barboza is a Times staff writer.

As many as five homes were lost to wildfire in an upscale Yorba Linda neighborhood last weekend because firefighters had no water, leaving them no choice but to let the homes burn, fire officials said Friday.

Firefighters were forced to abandon the upper portion of Hidden Hills Estates because when they hooked their hoses to hydrants, no water came out, said Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion.

Officials of the Yorba Linda Water District, which maintains the water system for the area, acknowledged this week that the area of upper Hidden Hills Estates had suffered weak water pressure for at least several months before the fire, but insisted that the problems Nov. 15 were due to the overwhelming water demands of the blaze.

More than 180 homes were destroyed or damaged when fire tore through Yorba Linda that day, 19 of them in the Hidden Hills neighborhood where firefighters encountered the dry hydrants. The ridge-top homes are adjacent to Chino Hills State Park, a 14,100-acre expanse of oaks and dry grasslands.

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“They decided to fight the fire where they had water,” Concepcion said, explaining why strike teams headed for lower ground. Although crews were able to use water tenders to shuttle some water up the hill, Concepcion blamed the loss of three to five homes on the lack of water from hydrants.

In all, the Freeway Complex fire destroyed 192 homes and damaged 123 over the weekend when it ripped through parts of four counties, according to the latest figures from the Orange County Fire Authority. Wind gusts of up to 61 mph propelled the fire through heavy brush, and many homes were ignited by floating embers.

The hillside areas of Yorba Linda sustained the worst damage.

Yorba Linda Water District officials continued to face heavy criticism Friday from Hidden Hills Estates residents, who said they have complained for years about water pressure problems.

“It’s a joke up there: Don’t have your sprinklers going when you’re taking a shower,” said Larry Goodnough, who was able to save his home by filling buckets of water from a backyard pool. “I’m bitter. You can’t blame the firemen. If there’s no water, you can’t fight the fire.”

Water district officials said no distribution system is capable of sustaining the water demands of such an intense and widespread fire. Hydrants are connected to the same potable-water system as home faucets, hoses and shower heads.

‘Too much fire’

“The problem here wasn’t too little water, it was too much fire,” district Assistant General Manager Ken Vecchiarelli said at a special board meeting this week. Water was flowing through the system at nearly twice its normal capacity, he said.

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But officials said they do not know if Santiago Reservoir, which supplies Hidden Hills Estates, was feeding water into the system or if electric pumps that pushed water uphill to much of the neighborhood were working properly during the fire because flames burned through the facility’s communications system, knocking it down for 24 hours.

The water district is conducting a review of its distribution system, and officials said they will make the report public.

The district’s 4,000 fire hydrants are tested annually and repaired or replaced if they don’t work, officials said

As Southern California has grown explosively in recent decades, water utilities have struggled to keep up and still provide adequate drinking water along with the extra capacity needed to fight fires, water experts said.

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“Nobody likes to pay for water, so the utilities are always under the gun to do things that will just meet the minimum requirements for safety,” said Bill Cooper, director of the UC Irvine Urban Water Research Center.

And often, Cooper said, the same hillside and canyon communities that have the greatest wildfire risk also are the first to lose water pressure when the system is being taxed in a wildfire.

“Those people who are at the highest point are going to lose water first. They’re also in the most danger of wildfires,” Cooper said.

“When you have a wildfire like we’ve seen, the burden that that places on the water distribution system is far greater than any planner could have dreamt,” he said.

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Water district officials said that the lack of water during the weekend fire was confined to the upper Hidden Hills neighborhood but that isolated problems could have occurred because of the overwhelming nature of a massive wildfire.

Fire officials reported at least one other incident of a lack of water, in a neighborhood two miles away.

According to Orange County Fire Capt. Greg McKeown, fire engines Nov. 15 encountered a dry hydrant on Fairmont Boulevard and Condor Ridge Road in Yorba Linda and had to tap into one 300 feet away.

“Although it delayed their actions momentarily, they did not lose any homes,” in that instance, he said.

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Highest area

Hidden Hills Estates is at a greater elevation than any other Yorba Linda neighborhood, and its upper streets are the only area within the water district’s boundaries where water is supplied solely by electric and gas pumps that push water uphill to homes, officials said. The rest of the city has standard gravity-fed water lines.

The water district has allocated $9 million for a new reservoir to supply Hidden Hills through a gravity-driven system, but has not built the facility yet.

Even so, some residents of this eucalyptus- and palm-lined neighborhood were outraged that more wasn’t done to fix the pressure problems before a fire came.

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“We’ve been promised the reservoir for at least two years,” said David Ramocinski, a 15-year resident who lost his home at the very top of Hidden Hills Road.

He said the pumps that supplied the community would sometimes break down, leaving only a blast of air coming out of the faucet. He called the water district about the weak water pressure so many times -- at least half a dozen, he said -- that he had taken to keeping a log, noting that the problem had worsened in the last three months.

“There was no evacuation notice and no water,” he said. “The only thing that saved some homes were residents getting buckets out of pools.”

Yorba Linda Councilwoman Jan Horton said the inadequacy of the water system during the fire was a “travesty.”

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“This was a tremendous firestorm, and it was a difficult fire to contain,” she said.

“But the situation was amplified by the fact that we didn’t have water,” she said. “We relied on residents to take care of the problem, and that wasn’t OK.”

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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