Legislators Alarmed for Districts Vulnerable to Firestorms

By Thomas K. Pendergast

After a Civil Grand Jury reported that large parts of San Francisco could burn to the ground after an earthquake if something is not done soon, four city supervisors and a state assemblyman have called the situation urgent and demanded action. 

District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced a resolution to the SF Board of Supervisors to speed up the schedule for expanding the high-pressure firefighting pipeline system because, after the recent fires and earthquakes throughout California, a catastrophe could happen at any time.

“One very critical area of disaster preparedness that has not been adequately addressed is the threat of widespread fires following an earthquake,” Mar said at a press conference at City Hall. “So, the resolution I’m introducing today is intended to bring greater attention and to elevate the priority of these urgent issues here at City Hall and throughout our City.”

Co-sponsoring the resolution are District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, Board President and District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai.

The Civil Grand Jury report raised questions about post-earthquake fire protection after the next major earthquake and whether firefighters will have enough water pressure to fight the resulting conflagrations. If it happens sooner rather than later, neighborhoods in supervisorial districts 1, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 11 could be engulfed in a firestorm similar to the fire which destroyed much of the City in 1906. 

The report, titled “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System” (EFWS), was made public in June. A $628 million bond measure is being proposed for the March 2020 ballot to improve fire stations and emergency facilities across the City. More than $154 million of that is slated to expand the EFWS – formerly known as the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) – into the Richmond and Sunset districts. This system of earthquake-resistant pipelines would cover large swaths of those districts and place a new pump station at Lake Merced to provide extra water for the expanded system. 

Also speaking in support of Mar’s resolution was California State Assembly District 19 representative Phil Ting.

“Thirty years after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake we don’t have to imagine what would happen if we actually had this type of earthquake,” Ting said. “We know what would happen and it’s the reason why our city was rebuilt from the ashes in 1906. We know much of the damage … was not the actual quake but the fact that the city could not put out the fires that the quake started.”

The 1906 shaker killed thousands, many incinerated while trapped in rubble due to hundreds of broken water mains and thousands of broken service connections. The system failures eliminated the water pressure needed to fight the ensuing firestorm. In the years immediately following that devastation, the City built the AWSS, a separate high-pressure water system composed of pipelines and sea-water pumps designed to withstand a massive earthquake and deliver enough water pressure to fight large fires. 

At the time, most of the City’s residents lived on the east side, so the original system was only built out, with some later expansions, as far west as 12th Avenue in the Richmond District and eventually 19th Avenue in the Sunset District. In the decades that followed, however, as the City expanded westward, the AWSS did not follow, leaving more than a dozen neighborhoods in the western and southern areas vulnerable to another devastating firestorm. 

“I represent the Richmond District, where there are thousands of homes, wooden built, very close to each other,” Fewer said. “Between the Richmond and the Sunset we are talking about 42,000 structures that are not covered by a high-pressure emergency water system. While most of central San Francisco has been equipped with a robust emergency water system known as AWSS, the Richmond District and other neighborhoods have not had the same access to high-pressure water systems in the case of a catastrophe.”

If, however, the demand for water in the Sunset District is too high or the southern basin of the Sunset Reservoir fails and there is not enough water pressure for the Richmond District, there is no money in the bond set aside for a salt-water pump near Ocean Beach in District 1 as a backup. Funding for that option would have to be provided later.

“What I particularly like about Supervisor Mar’s resolution is it also asks for the feasibility of a salt-water pump on our side of the City, on the west side,” Fewer said. 

Also not included in the 2020 bond is money to expand the high-pressure pipelines into the southernmost areas of the City, leaving the south end of districts 7, 8, 9 and 11 far more vulnerable to fire than anywhere else in San Francisco. 

Mar’s resolution addresses these shortcomings in three ways: It calls for the expansion of the EFWS with high-pressure pipelines that are dedicated to firefighting in all currently unprotected neighborhoods within 15 years; it calls for increasing the number of the fire department’s portable hose tenders to provide extra protection on an interim basis within three years; and the resolution also requires annual reports to the Board of Supervisors on the status of the EFWS preparedness for an earthquake of up to 7.8 and any resulting fires. 

The resolution urges the Department of Emergency Management, SFPUC, SFFD and the Office of Resilience and Capital Planning to provide the consolidated annual report.

Board president and District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee noted that in his district there are a lot of tree stands around Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro, and also a lot of homes that are built around and adjacent to those trees. 

“I probably wasn’t as worried about it five or six years ago,” Yee said. “But considering the type of fires that we’ve seen devastate California and the type of weather that we’re getting now, much of the forest land and the trees that we see there are eucalyptus … what I’m seeing is much more dryer air, we’re seeing much stronger winds and if anything ever starts up in those mountain areas, with the system that we have, it’s not going to put it out.”    

The grand jury report also points out that the most vulnerable area right now is District 11 (which includes Ingleside, Excelsior, Outer Mission and Crocker Amazon, among other neighborhoods). Not only does it have only one mile of high-pressure pipeline, it also only has 24 hydrants servicing that mile and five water cisterns to cover that part of the district. 

A legislative aide to District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, Monica Chinchilla, addressed the press conference by calling attention to the AWSS pipeline map that was projected above them showing which areas are now covered and which are not. She also mentioned that her district recently had several fires, one of which resulted in fatalities. 

“When I look at this map, this is where most of our families in San Francisco reside,” Chinchilla said, referring to the unprotected areas. “It fills us with such urgency that we have to create a solution and have to move on this quickly so that our most vulnerable, our families are protected.”

Albert Chow, president of People Of Parkside and Sunset, mentioned that a 2003 Civil Grand Jury report had similar conclusions to this year’s report yet nothing has been done since then. 

“We’re in the midst of another growth boom and we can’t just build houses,” Chow said. “We need to be able to find a way to protect those houses, protect those families and protect our small businesses.”

David Hirtzel, president of the Pine Lake Park Neighborhood Association, also voiced his concern over the lack of coverage in his District 7 neighborhood. 

 “We are in a situation where we have multiple gas lines under the streets of our City. These gas lines are potentially dangerous and can result in a fire much like the one we just saw in February of this year at Parker and Geary. It took hours to put the fire out and they actually had to extend fire hoses for many blocks just to put out that fire,” Hirtzel said. “In the event of an earthquake, many of these gas lines – which are under every street –  are lines extending into every household. Many of these lines could be broken and we will have simultaneous fires all over the city.”

He praised the idea called for in the report of a stop-gap solution by purchasing more portable hose-tender trucks, which are essentially pumps on wheels that can draw water from a cistern or lake and cost about $1 million each. These would then be placed at strategic locations in the uncovered areas.


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