Water pumps failed in fire, officials say

Barboza is a Times staff writer.

Water officials said Tuesday that pumps designed to push water to the upper reaches of a hillside Yorba Linda neighborhood failed during a Nov. 15 firestorm, possibly explaining why firefighters were forced to abandon the area and let homes burn after fire hydrants went dry.

The disclosure came four days after Orange County fire officials blamed the loss of as many as five homes in the neighborhood on lack of water from fire hydrants.

More than 180 homes were destroyed or damaged when fire tore through Yorba Linda, 19 of them in the upper Hidden Hills Estates neighborhood where firefighters encountered the dry hydrants. The ridge-top homes border Chino Hills State Park, 14,100 acres of oaks and dry grasslands.

Agency officials had said they believed the dry hydrants were caused by the overwhelming water demands of such an intense and widespread firefighting effort.

But on Tuesday, officials described a frantic afternoon and evening in which, little by little, they learned from media reports, fire authorities and their own inspection crews that neighborhood fire hydrants had gone dry, electronic communications had failed and pumps expected to help deliver the water had shut down.


The problems first surfaced at 1:22 p.m., when the water district’s computer system lost communication with Santiago Reservoir and a nearby pump station, which together supply water to the neighborhood of about 110 homes for residential use and for hydrants, Assistant General Manager Ken Vecchiarelli told reporters Tuesday.

The electronic communication lapse lasted 24 hours.

Then, after seeing television news reports about 3 p.m. detailing a lack of water in the Hidden Hills area, district officials started to ask other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority, if they were having water problems. They initially said no, Vecchiarelli said.

At 4:15, a water district crew made it up to the burned-out Santiago pump station to find three electric pumps and a gas-powered backup had shut down. Workers then checked fire hydrants one by one, finding that while some still had water pressure, the highest ones had run dry.

Water officials believe the electric pumps shut off because the fire had burned through their electrical communication systems. The backup, they said, failed because of the heat.

Workers were able to restart the pumps manually but later had to shut them off because too much air -- and not enough water -- in the system was causing them to vibrate.

By 4:30, workers saw that the 1.1-million-gallon Santiago Reservoir, which is covered, was less than 15% full, and by 11 p.m., hours after the fire had passed, workers lifted up the hatch to find it totally drained.

Hidden Hills Estates is the highest neighborhood in Yorba Linda, 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, the very ones that failed, officials said. The rest of the city has standard gravity-fed water lines.

Hidden Hills residents said they have complained for years about low water pressure and said they had been told for several years that a reservoir was to be built soon.

Water officials also have acknowledged that there had been problems with water pressure in the neighborhood.

“We were doing improvements to make it more reliable until we could build a new reservoir,” Vecchiarelli said. The water district had recently improved the backup pump and set aside up to $9 million for the new reservoir to supply Hidden Hills through a gravity-driven system, he said.

Officials said Tuesday that the reservoir has been on the to-do list since at least 2001, when developer Shapell Industries first submitted plans to build homes around Hidden Hills. The agency has recognized the need for more reservoirs in the eastern side of Yorba Linda for 30 years but depends on developers’ building plans to determine where to locate the infrastructure.

Since then, officials said, they have hit stumbling blocks with Shapell and the state, which owns the land on which the planned 2-million-gallon reservoir and pipes leading to it would be built. Land use hang-ups and environmental review processes have caused delays, they said. Officials said they are now meeting with state officials and asking for the process to be expedited.

“Nothing can bring those homes back,” Vecchiarelli said. But now, he said, he hopes the message is clear that it is better to have the reservoir sooner than later.