PHOENIX, Ore. – As the fight against the Almeda Fire continued into the evening hours on September 8, 2020, firefighters ran into a worst-case scenario: no water was coming out of the fire hydrants. Fire crews had to adapt and fast, as the blaze continued to consume homes in Ashland, Talent and Phoenix.
"In the beginning, I don't think anyone thought water supply would be an issue," Jimmy Johnson, an engineer with Jackson County Fire District 5 told NewsWatch 12. Quickly, a nightmare scenario was unfolding for first responders.
Things went from bad to worse around 8 p.m. that evening.
"You take the hose off the hydrant, and you open the hydrant, and nothing comes out,” Johnson said “So at that point you realize, okay, this whole system is shut down."
They eventually had water tankers drive in water from Ashland to the firefighters. It took precious resources off the wire — and each passing minute the Almeda Fire grew larger.
But why did water stop flowing from fire hydrants in Talent and Phoenix that evening?
Virtually all of the water for the areas effected by the Almeda Fire comes from the TAP Line. The TAP Line (which stands for Talent, Ashland, Phoenix) is a part of the Medford Water Commission and is a 24-inch diameter pipe providing water to all of Phoenix and Talent and can be used by Ashland to meet additional water needs.
At max output, the TAP Line moves about 4,000 gallons per minute (peak times can see flow rates up to 4,400 gpm). Most fire hydrants use anywhere between 500 and 800 gallons per minute, with some larger ones able to move 1,000 gpm.
Five 800-gpm fire hydrants would meet that 4,000-gpm threshold. A sixth would surpass it. But too many fire hydrants being used wasn’t the main issue.
"The biggest challenge for us was the service lines in the house that were burned down,” the City of Phoenix’s superintendent Matias Mendez told NewsWatch 12. “That was the biggest loss of water for us."
As each home was destroyed, a water line went with it. Mendez says the average house water line when uninhibited can pull about 5 gallons per minute. When over 2,500 buildings were destroyed, the numbers add up quickly.
On the day of the fire, Mendez, a 20-year veteran of the Phoenix Public Works Department, was monitoring the reservoir levels for the Phoenix system. In the evening hours on September 8th, he watched water levels plummet.
"We had to do something and otherwise we're going to lose our water really quick,” Mendez said.
The only way to stop the free-flow of water from these residential pipes without effecting the flow to hydrants was to manually shut off the meters.
So back into the fire Mendez and some of his crew members went to try and do what they could to help fire fighters trying to slow the fire’s spread.
“We're trying to approach water meters and shut it off,” Mendez said. "But that was, you know, almost impossible because that was too dangerous and that was not safe for us to do that."
Mendez did not sleep that night and was out in Phoenix the very next day, manually shutting off service lines to restore water levels in the reservoir. While he was doing that, he found his home of 20 years had also burned down in the Almeda Fire.
The TAP Line was never built to handle an event like the Almeda Fire and it’s not something that can easily be changed. Factoring in wind and how dry surrounding vegetation was, it’s hard to envision a different outcome for the Almeda Fire.
But Mendez, who’s lived in Phoenix for 30 years, is staying right here in Southern Oregon. He and his son are building their new home in Phoenix and hope that this December his family’s new home will be ready to welcome them.
“We're rebuilding our home and we are about 70% completed and it's a bigger home,” Mendez said, the smile on his face evident through his voice while he wore a mask. “I hope we can be home for Christmas. That's our goal. Be back in home on Christmas.”
Just another example of how strong the Southern Oregon community is, and how determined they are to rebuild after the Almeda Fire’s devastation.