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SPONSORED: SFPUC Projects Will Not Save Us From Fire Catastrophes

Hydrant Expansion Plan Would Leave the Richmond District and Sea Cliff Without Adequate Water for Fighting Post-Earthquake Fires

By Frank T. Blackburn, Assistant Chief, SFFD, retired, and Thomas W. Doudiet, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired 

It has now been three and a half years since the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon first published (November 2017) the story of how ill-prepared San Francisco is to fight the 70 to 120 basically simultaneous fires that experts tell us will break out following the next great Bay Area earthquake. 

Subsequently, the Civil Grand Jury (CGJ), persuaded by concerned citizens to investigate this situation, published its 2019 report “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS).”

Given that the City’s low-pressure hydrant system simply won’t survive a major earthquake, the two most important conclusions of that report were that in order to avoid destruction of major parts of the City by post-earthquake firestorms: (1) the high-pressure hydrant system, which serves primarily the northeastern part of the City, must be expanded to cover all San Francisco neighborhoods; and (2) time is of the essence. 

Since the findings and recommendations of the report are not binding on any City agency, the Water Department (SFPUC), which is the current guardian of the high-pressure hydrant system, is free to ignore the very essence of the CGJ recommendations. So, instead of taking a serious approach to the 13 year timeline to complete by 2034 a comprehensive Citywide expansion of the hydrant system that CGJ identified as prudent and reasonable, the SFPUC is proposing a series of neighborhood-by-neighborhood mini-projects that may stretch out until 2050 or beyond. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tells us to expect the next big Bay Area earthquake by 2043, a date the SFPUC is ignoring. 

Westside residents should know that the SFPUC’s piecemeal project plan for the Richmond and Sea Cliff will not suppress all the random fires that will occur and which must be fought under post-earthquake conditions. The infrastructure plan that the SFPUC is proposing won’t supply adequate water pressure to the hydrants in the northern end of the Richmond or Sea Cliff areas because the nearest pump station is now on the opposite side of the City, and the plan won’t tie in with the existing high-pressure hydrant system that ends on 12th Avenue in the Richmond and 19th Avenue in the Sunset. 

The more hydrants that are opened between the pump stations and the northern end of the Richmond, the lower the pressure and volume of available water will be to fight fires along Geary Boulevard and California Street. The Sea Cliff neighborhood is the most affected since the SFPUC’s plan does not install even a single high-pressure hydrant anywhere north of California Street or access unlimited water to reach them. Moreover, with its plan not tying into the existing high-pressure hydrant system, those hydrants that are along 12th Avenue and 19th Avenue, that depend on getting water from pump stations on the northern and eastern waterfront, will also be starved for water supply. 

There is an obvious remedy for these issues. The existing northeastern quadrant high-pressure hydrant system is capable of supplying unlimited amounts of saltwater from the bay for firefighting, as it has done so reliably since the system was first put into service in 1913. Two northern and eastern waterfront pump stations and three fireboats can provide an enormous amount (88,000 gallons per minute) of saltwater to fight fires, which is exactly what is going to be needed for the western side of the City when the post-earthquake conflagrations start. It is absolutely critical to the survival of the Richmond and Sea Cliff districts that a high-pressure saltwater pump station be built at the north end of Ocean Beach and be incorporated into the high-pressure hydrant and pipeline expansion plan ASAP. 

However, the SFPUC has made it no secret that it doesn’t want to build a saltwater pump station on the west side of the City, precisely where it would be able to provide an inexhaustible amount of water at high pressure to protect the northern Richmond and Sea Cliff areas, and also to enhance the water supply to the line of hydrants on 12th Avenue. The SFPUC says it is “studying” the possibility of building an Ocean Beach pump station, perhaps at some nebulous time in the future. 

Vancouver BC built an underground saltwater pump station under a park in 2003 for $52 million, so the construction cost is not unreasonable. More funding is needed to expand the high- pressure pipelines and hydrants that will connect us to the existing saltwater system that is the backup to the potable water system. These two water delivery systems are not connected, nor should they be. Funding for improving infrastructure is available from state and federal sources if applied for. 

Professor Charles Scawthorn, S.E., the lead engineering consultant to the SFPUC on fires following earthquakes, provided them with his Jan. 5, 2018 review of the various options under consideration for expanding the EFWS, which is a public document. In the Discussion Section on the option to use Sunset Reservoir for EFWS, he wrote the following comment that the SFPUC ignored: 

“Another key aspect deserving discussion is the whole concept of using Sunset Reservoir as an EFWS source. … The Pacific Ocean: it was ironic that San Francisco burnt for three days due to lack of firefighting water, when it is surrounded on three sides by the largest body of water on earth. Construction of a West Side Salt Water Pump Station (WSSWPS) would be very beneficial and eliminate the need for using the potable water in Sunset Reservoir, a precious resource particularly following a major earthquake.” 

Bottom line: The only way the Richmond and Sea Cliff districts are going to survive the fires that will inevitably follow the next big earthquake is with a hydrant system having an inexhaustible water supply from a saltwater pump station at the north end of Ocean Beach. If that’s not part of the plan – and right now it isn’t – it will be impossible for the SFFD to control the post- earthquake conflagrations in our neighborhoods. 

Can Supervisors Connie Chan, Gordon Mar and Catherine Stephani successfully fight for adequate post-earthquake fire protection for our homes and businesses, or is the SFPUC going to be allowed to shortchange the northwest quadrant of the City by leaving us with a permanently inadequate firefighting system? Now is the time for Richmond and Sea Cliff residents to demand equal and adequate protection from post-earthquake fires. Otherwise our neighborhoods will, quite simply, not survive the inevitable firestorms. Time is of the essence to commit to completing our protection system before the next major earthquake hits. 

San Francisco in flames after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the City was destroyed because of inadequate firefighting water supplies. Will we allow that to happen again as the SFPUC ignores the fact that an abundant source of water for firefighting – the largest body of water on earth – surrounds the City? Courtesy photo of a painting by W. A. Coulter.

Sponsored commentary paid for by concerned residents.

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