It’s Not Just the Earthquake; It’s the Inferno

Most area cities remain woefully unprepared for the profusion of fires expected to break out in the wake of the Big One.


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Photo courtesy of Berkeley Police Department

Berkeley has invested in hoses and pumps to get water from the Bay up to the Berkeley Hills in the event of a water loss after an earthquake.

Following the massive 1991 East Bay Hills Fire, Berkeley made plans to construct a system of underground cisterns, pipes, and pumps to swiftly transport water through the city. But once residents learned about the proposal’s scope, it was quickly snuffed out due to what Assistant Fire Chief of Special Operations Dave Brannigan recalls as a “not-in-my-backyard type of situation.” In response, Berkeley passed a turn-of-the-century bond measure that allocated $9.6 million for an above-ground fix.

Viewed in hindsight, that change of plans may have been fortuitous, since the above-ground option left Berkeley as the East Bay city best prepared to deal with the fires likely to arise after a major earthquake.

Berkeley’s investment bought it six miles of 12-inch hose and a Hytrans pump system from the Netherlands that’s designed to suck salt water from the bay and deliver it anywhere in the city. Although it’s hard to move, will block traffic, and can be deployed only on three or four routes through the city, it’s still the best local system for deploying large volumes of water to a massive East Bay fire.

“Every fire department in the state of California should have it, or something like it,” warned Charles Scawthorn, a UC Berkeley researcher and principal at the disaster-response consultancy SPA Risk who has been modeling quakes for 40 years. “The state should develop a standardized system for cities of more than 50,000. They would be linked together and be able to work together in the event of a catastrophe.”

Cities in Alameda County still remain highly vulnerable to a devastating fire like the 1991 inferno that destroyed more than 3,000 homes and took 25 lives. Perhaps the most likely scenario for such a fire would be in the immediate aftermath of a large earthquake.

In the event of a Big One along the Hayward Fault, a quake of magnitude 7 or greater, which researchers believe will occur sometime between 2017 and 2030, there almost certainly will be fires. The most likely culprit would be sparks igniting gas from ruptured pipelines. Yet a major quake will also compromise thousands of water pipes and possibly major aqueducts, potentially cutting off water flow that firefighters need to combat an inferno. After all, as much as 90 percent of the total devastation resulting from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake really stemmed from the subsequent fires.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District acknowledges that disruptions to its water service are all but inevitable. “There will be thousands of pipe breaks,” spokeswoman Abby Figueroa said. “We can expect those things here.” Much of the damage will likely be due to the fact that EBMUD built most of its system prior to mapping the entire Hayward Fault, meaning that a significant number of pipes cross the fault.

Oakland’s Fire Department Operations Chief Mark Hoffmann believes his city is pretty well equipped to handle the fires in the aftermath of a major quake, although he cautions that anything big will wreak havoc no matter how prepared the city is. “Right, now we have a system in place that’s mostly effective,” Hoffman said.

Although Oakland has retired its single working fireboat, the fire department keeps its water-pumping capabilities available so that it can be moved along the estuary to act like one of Berkeley’s water pumps. “I’d like to have a couple of pumps like Berkeley has, and if we ever lose the boat, a couple more,” Hoffman said.

Oakland’s department also has four portable water supply systems—think of them like splitters with multiple nozzles on a garden hose—that can suck water from the reservoirs and bodies of water around the city, or connect to the fireboat currently docked at the foot of Clay Street.

The Alameda County Fire Department has one single 2,500-gallon tanker truck that it can refill with bay water. But that is enough water to power one handline for only 10 minutes, or 10 handlines for one minute—essentially just enough water to combat a blazing single family home. Although it takes only seven minutes to refill the tanker, which can theoretically be from any source, it would likely take too much time to move around to be very useful in a large-scale conflagration.

The county department, which serves Castro Valley, Emeryville, and San Leandro, and has a station at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, can daisy-chain its fire trucks together to siphon water from the bay. But Scawthorn doesn’t believe that will be useful after a massive quake. Using trucks as pumps keeps the engines from fighting other fires, making daisy-chaining a double-edged sword.

In contrast to the county, the city of Alameda does have a few more resources to fight quake-induced fires. Being an island, the city’s single fireboat can act as a de facto water source for blazes just about anywhere within the city. “It’s better than nothing at all,” Captain Sharon Oliver said. The city has taken a renewed interest in this issue, and officials are studying possible solutions, including a pump system like Berkeley’s. But cost is a major concern. The fire hoses carry a price tag of at least $1.5 million, and the city could afford its fireboat only through a federal grant.

As for EBMUD, since the Loma Prieta quake, the district has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on seismic improvements to reservoirs, treatment plants, and transmission lines, the most critical of which include the Claremont Tunnel. That’s an enormous aqueduct that runs through the hills, and is the main source of water for about 800,000 people in Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland. Scawthorn is confident that the improvements are sufficient to protect the Claremont Tunnel.

Figueroa acknowledged that there is still much more for EBMUD to accomplish. Plans to upgrade distribution pipes are in the works as well as a pilot program to test out special pipes from the Kubota Corp. in Japan that are designed to gyrate along with the shaking caused by a quake. EBMUD also plans to add automatic shutoff valves at reservoirs, so that if a pipe ruptures, the bulk of the water would be held versus spilled out at the pipe break.

Despite the looming specter of a Big One, and the fires that will almost certainly accompany the lost lives and billions of dollars in property damage that are expected, Alameda county cities remain less prepared than they should be to deal with the potential lack of firefighting water in the wake of a quake. The recent Napa shaker was a relatively small reminder—to the tune of dozens of injuries and $1 billion of damage—that the question is not whether a temblor will wreak havoc on East Bay communities, but when.

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