Neighborhoods’ Fire Threat
By Paul Kozakiewicz
City officials have been playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with the safety and
security of tens of thousands of San Franciscan’s lives. They all agree that a catastrophic
earthquake is coming, but they hope it’s not on their watch.
As the city’s western and southern neighborhoods pushed to the city’s boundaries in the
1930s through 1950s, the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which is designed to
provide firefighters water for fighting fires after a major disaster, was never extended to
protect thousands of homes and businesses.
The AWSS was built after the Great Earthquake of 1906 to protect the City after it burned
down for the fifth time. It can pump large volumes of fresh or salt water at a high pressure,
and is rigorously designed to survive a large quake, with heavy-duty hydrants and pipe
joints that are reinforced with steel tie rods.
Most of the City is covered with AWSS access, with some 135 miles of AWSS being
constructed, but for some 15 neighborhoods in the western and southern neighborhoods,
there could be a serious lack of water to fight fires after a major earthquake.
The problem is particularly acute in the outer Richmond, Sunset and Parkside districts and
Sea Cliff area. The SFPUC ran an extension of the AWSS on a portion of Ocean Avenue and
claims the southern neighborhoods are adequately covered, but there are areas unserved
by the line. As well, an extension of the AWSS covering the Bayview neighborhood
has pressure problems, creating a “dead end loop.”
It has always been recognized by city leaders that the outer neighborhoods needed to be
protected. In 1986 city voters passed an earthquake safety bond, which resulted in some
expansions of the system. The remainder of the AWSS build-out has been in limbo ever
since, despite city voters approving two bond measures for earthquake safety, in 2010
Mayor’s Bad Decision
In 2010, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom faced a city budget deficit of some $500 million, and
was doing everything in his power to eliminate it. (Most of the budget deficit was created
by Newsom’s overzealous patronizing of the city’s unions, whose members got huge raises
during Newsom’s first term, including a raise of 15 percent over two years for the city’s
police officers and firefighters.)
Despite cuts to the SF Fire Department’s (SFFD) 2010 budget, it was still about $3.5 million
short when Newsom took action. To eliminate the problem, Newsom transferred
ownership of the AWSS from the fire department to the SF Public Utilities Commission
(SFPUC), despite the opposition of SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes White and the members of
the SF Fire Commission.
That “departmental transfer” of a city asset resulted in five years of negotiations before a
final Memorandum of Understanding was agreed upon. During that time, the SFPUC
was hiring consultants, to the tune of $2.6 million so far, to examine the city’s water assets
and to design alternative plans to extend the AWSS. The SFPUC did not want to spend the
estimated $600 million cost to extend the AWSS and safeguard the safety and property of
thousands of San Franciscans.
Initially, the consulting company, AECOM, created a way to tap the Sunset and University
Mound reservoirs for firefighting water by purchasing 15 miles of flexible hose that could
be unfurled along city roads after an earthquake by Neighborhood Emergency Response
Team volunteers. But that plan was abandoned, fortunately, because it would not have
worked. The fact that the SFPUC was pursuing it should give any reasonable person
pause for thought about its motives.
According to SFPUC deputy communications director Tyler Gamble, the plan was scrapped
because over-pressurization could cause the hose to rupture; there was no place to store
the hoses and trailers; and, it would take too long to deploy the system.
Now, the SFPUC is working on another scheme, a Potable Co-benefits Plan, which would
convert a water main in the Outer Sunset, on Ortega Street and 41st Avenue, to an AWSS
That plan, and several others, is supposed to be released by the SFPUC in December. I can’t
wait to see what the department is offering up for our safety.
With one option, the extension of the AWSS, the fire department would have an unlimited
supply of fresh and salt water available at high pressure for firefighting within 30 minutes.
Alternatives would be limited to fresh water stored in shaky reservoirs and dependent on
a 120-mile-long pipeline from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountain
range. These alternatives could use the University Mound and Sunset reservoirs, both of
which had only their north basins structurally reinforced. The ability of the south basins to
survive a strong earthquake is suspect.
As well, for the Potable Co-benefits Plan there would have to be hundreds of gate valves to
convert a water main into an AWSS line. The valves would seal the water main off from all
service connections until an evaluation of the system could be completed. That could result
in hundreds of underground valves shutting water off from residents’ homes when they
need it most, after an earthquake to put out small fires before they become large fires.
Each valve would need a large battery too, in case the power goes out. A thousand moving
parts, what could go wrong?
And, what do we do without fresh water after an earthquake? That scenario sets off a new
set of crises, like cholera and other health issues.
There might seem to be a lot of water available in the city’s University Mound and Sunset
reservoirs, but half of the water is in a precarious position in unreinforced concrete basins
that could bleed out after a disaster.
If that happens, what will be left after firefighting efforts are completed. The University
Mound and Sunset reservoirs have about 75 million gallons in each of their north basins.
To put that in perspective, a fire in a large wood building under construction in the
Mission Bay neighborhood several years ago reportedly consumed 15 million
gallons of water.
The east side of the city is well prepared to fight fires after a major earthquake. The whole
city should be well prepared to fight fires after a major earthquake.
We’ll just have to wait and see what the SFPUC and SFFD and its consultants come up with
next to protect exposed neighborhoods.
I bet most San Franciscans don’t know who runs the SFPUC, or the names of the directors
making policy. Yet this commission is making life-and-death decisions.
I hope the SFPUC and SFFD craft a good plan for protecting exposed San Franciscans, and
present forward-looking ideas, as the letter drafted by them proclaims (see page 6). I hope
they take an attitude of doing what’s best to protect the people they are charged with
protecting, and not succumb to the temptation of constructing cheaper, perhaps
less effective, alternatives. I hope our elected officials, including district supervisors, will
be vigilant and fight for their constituents. I hope our leaders give our firefighters a
fighting chance to knock down the flames before our neighborhoods are engulfed.
Paul Kozakiewicz is editor of the Sunset Beacon newspaper.
FOLLOW THIS LINK TO READ MORE ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO’S VULNERABILITY TO FIRES IN CASE OF AN EARTHQUAKE.