Sound the fire alarm!
by Thomas W. Doudiet
As a 60-year resident of the Richmond District and a 32-year veteran of the SF Fire
Department (SFFD), I have long been aware that the Outer Richmond and
Sunset districts, with their hundreds of blocks of wood-frame buildings, will be highly
vulnerable to fire immediately following the next great Bay Area earthquake.
For many years while a member of the fire department, and for several years since my
retirement in 2011, I have attempted, with little success, to alert city officials, including
members of the SF Board of Supervisors and staff in the mayor’s office.
My message: There will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD to use in
these neighborhoods for fighting fires after the “big one” hits.
Why is this so?
There are two kinds of fire hydrants in San Francisco, the 9,000 small white low-pressure
hydrants supplied by the same domestic water mains that supply water to every building
in the City and the 1,600 larger hydrants with red, blue or black tops, supplied by the
high-pressure mains of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS). This system was
installed in the years following the 1906 earthquake and fire, mainly in the areas of the
City that had been built up by 1913. Thus, it doesn’t exist west of 12th Avenue in the
Richmond, west of 19th Avenue in the Sunset or in the city’s southern neighborhoods.
The seismically robust mains of the high-pressure hydrant system were built to
withstand the effects of ground movement during an earthquake, whereas the
domestic water supply that supplies both the low-pressure hydrants, as well as all of the
city’s buildings, are not as seismically resistant.
“I have attempted, with little success, to alert city officials … there will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD… after the big one hits.”
These domestic mains, and many thousands of service connection water pipes leading
from the mains into buildings, could break during a major seismicevent. The result will
be that the SFFD will have little or no water available from the low-pressure hydrants,
just as happened in 1906.
In more than 15 neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the Bayview Heights, Crocker
Amazon, Excelsior, Ingleside, Little Hollywood, Merced Manor, Mission Terrace,
Oceanview, Outer Mission, Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, Parkside, Portola, Sea Cliff,
Stonestown and Sunnyside, there are no high-pressure hydrants, so how will SFFD
firefighters stop the spread of fire from building to building and, soon thereafter,
from block to block?
The simple answer is that they won’t. Conflagrations (fire storms), as occurred in
1906, will result.
How do we know there will be any fires? In addition to water service pipes going into
every building in San Francisco, there are also natural gas pipes. Just as most of our
domestic water mains are more than 100 years old, so are the gas pipes in many
of these buildings. As we were shown in the Marina District in 1989, when building
structures are disrupted, and sometimes collapse during an earthquake, ruptured
gas lines are an explosive source of building fires.
Assuming that even one building in 1,000 develops an internal gas leak during an
earthquake (there are approximately 56 residential buildings on an average
block in the Richmond and the Sunset), let’s calculate the potential: there are about 225
square blocks in the Outer Richmond and about 525 blocks in the Outer
Sunset – that is a total of 750 blocks times 56 buildings per block equals 42,000 buildings.
If we assume one gas leak per 1,000 buildings, there could be 42 simultaneous
fires, in wood-frame buildings fed by natural gas leaks. Again, there will be no water in
the existing low-pressure hydrants to fight these fires.
By the way, the 75,000 gallon cisterns that the City recently added to the Sunset (and a
few in the Richmond) are good adjuncts to high-pressure hydrants, but they alone
will not stop the fires following a large earthquake. Unless the use of water
from a cistern to fight fires is very close to the fire, it would require two engines
per cistern for firefighting, one at the cistern and one at the scene of the fire.
There are only 44 fire engines in San Francisco and only six engines assigned
to cover both the outer Richmond and Sunset districts, possibly only enough to fight
three fires using water from cisterns on the west side, and leaving perhaps as many as 39
fires burning unchecked.
Individual building fires that are not fought, especially in blocks of wood frame buildings
with no space between them, could very soon lead to entire blocks on fire. The build-up
of heat from many buildings burning simultaneously results in fire spreading from block
to block by radiated heat, and the massive amounts of super-heated air rising creates a
draft similar to a howling windstorm (eye-witness accounts of the fires after
the 1906 earthquake vividly describe this process).
The entire southern and western parts of the city could be destroyed by fire in a single
day following a major earthquake. The point here is that unless the fire department has a
ready source of water in a stable, high-pressure, high-volume hydrant system to use to
fight individual small fires immediately after a large earthquake, entire neighborhoods
will be destroyed.
As difficult as it is to consider, people trapped in collapsed buildings that are in the path
of a conflagration are not likely to be rescued before they, too, are consumed by
In 2010 and again in 2014, San Francisco voters approved the so-called Earthquake
Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) Bonds. Literature published in support of the
ballot propositions in the Voter’s Guide by the SF Chamber of Commerce and
SF Democratic Party implied the AWSS extensions of the high-pressure hydrant system
into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts were going to be funded by these and
Following the passage of the 2014 ESER bond measure, however, a strange thing
occurred. In spite of the published reports and recommendations of the engineering
firm the City hired to study fire protection issues, the SF Water Department (an arm of
the SF Public Utilities Commission) clearly signaled that it no longer intended to go
forward with the extension of this hydrant system into our neighborhoods after all.
This change in plans became apparent when they moved to auction off, for scrap metal
prices, millions of dollars worth of materials and parts that the City had stored for the
purpose of repairing and extending the high-pressure hydrant system. The water
department’s actual intent then became clear: despite what voters had been led to
believe, the water department now has absolutely no intention of actually extending
the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods.
In April 2016, SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the supervisors’ Government Audit
and Oversight Committee, held a hearing to determine whether the auctioning off of
these parts by the water department made sense, in view of the city’s publication, just
before the 2014 bond issue, of maps showing the proposed extension of the high-
pressure hydrant system into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts and other
Representatives of the water and fire departments were asked to explain to the
supervisors why, if they intended to extend the system into currently unserved
neighborhoods, they would be selling off the necessary parts as scrap metal.
The answer given by both a water department manager and a uniformed member of the
SFFD’s command staff was that they now believed that these hydrants were not needed.
Instead, they said, they had discovered that they could purchase 15 miles of large
diameter hoses that could be dropped from the back of flatbed trucks, as needed,
following a major earthquake. This, they stated, would enable the fire department to
fight the expected fires and save those neighborhoods, without high-pressure hydrants,
from being destroyed by conflagrations.
To say that this bizarre scheme defies common sense is an extreme understatement:
• They had no experience using this type of hose, even in daytime simulations under
• They had no plan for where the hose and these trucks would be stored;
• They had no plan for who would drive the trucks (later, it was proposed the
Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) volunteers would do the job);
• They proposed using capital bond money to purchase the hose, despite the illegality of
• They had no explanation as to how the trucks would maneuver around earthquake
debris in the streets, possibly in total darkness and without electricity;
• They could not explain how incipient fires could be fought without any water, nor who
would be rescuing people trapped in damaged buildings, while firefighters
were occupied setting up flexible hoses;
• They had no explanation as to how they would avoid having these same huge hoses
overrun by the conflagrations that would have developed from the merging of the many
incipient fires that would be left unchecked during the hours that all this elaborate
process was taking place.
Obviously, the large-diameter hose premise put forth by the water department, and
which the uniformed SFFD command staff member clearly and heartily endorsed,
was an absurdly adolescent exercise in trying to cover their folly in abandoning
the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods
where it has never been installed.
Fortunately, the flexible hose scheme has been abandoned.
There is no dependable high-pressure and high-volume source of emergency water for
post-earthquake firefighting in the outer neighborhoods, and therefore it is entirely
accurate to say: The SFFD has no viable plan for extinguishing post-earthquake fires in
outlying areas of the City.
As it stands now, 15 neighborhoods are exposed and will very likely be destroyed by fire
following the next big Bay Area earthquake, and, neither the water department nor the
fire department has any coherent plans to mitigate this situation!
If this intolerable level of official negligence on the part of the water an fire departments
is not corrected, you and I and most of our neighbors will very probably lose our homes
and businesses to fires after a big earthquake.
After all has been destroyed, the blame will be squarely on the management of water
and fire department officials. The best that can be said for these “public
servants” is that they are guilty of gross professional incompetence; the worst is that
their refusal to address this issue borders on criminal negligence.
If they will not live up to their professional responsibilities, they must be relieved of
their duties and replaced with competent people who will.
Our district supervisors and the mayor must be put on notice that the residents of the
city’s southern and western districts will no longer tolerate this egregious indifference to
our personal safety and the safety of our homes and businesses. Let them know that we
rightfully expect the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer
neighborhoods. Our homes, businesses and the safety of our families will someday
depend on it.
Thomas W. Doudiet is a retired assistant deputy chief with the SF Fire Department.