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Fire hydrants stopped pumping water during the Almeda Fire

With water running at near maximum capacity all day as crews tried to fight the flames, fire crews couldn't get water from fire hydrants late Tuesday night.

Posted: Sep 25, 2020 6:28 PM

PHOENIX, Ore. — It was a worst-case scenario for firefighters who had spent their entire day fighting the Almeda Fire on September 8, 2020. No water was coming out of the fire hydrants.

"I've never seen a circumstance like we had that day," Jackson County Fire District 5 Captain Aaron Bustard said. "The hydrant would be working and a few minutes to an hour later, there would just be no water. The hydrants were going empty."

(Photo courtesy of Sean Roberts)

An extremely rare circumstance for fire crews.

"If we lose pressure on one hydrant, it's usually an issue with that individual hydrant for the most part," Bustard says.

But it was city-wide and as crews continued to try and stop the Almeda Fire's spread, firefighters had to adapt. Crews rotated engines and water tenders to Ashland where they would fill up with water then drive back to the Talent-Phoenix area. Those trips would pull at least two firefighters off the fight and take anywhere from 15-30 minutes.

The trip only got longer as the night went on with downed powerlines and poles, blocking routes for the engines. Challenges continued to mount.

"Now you have not just one structure, but you have multiple structures and all this grassy area woods, you name it, going on fire," Bustard said. "And we have no water."

The loss of water pressure has a few explanations.

One factor: buildings that burned left open plumbing with nothing to stop their water lines from flowing. More than 23-hundred homes and businesses burned the night of the Almeda Fire.

Another factor: the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix (TAP) intertie pipeline that supplies talent and phoenix water from the Medford water commission. The commission says it was able to supply the water needed by the pump station that supplies Talent and Phoenix their water.

The TAP pump station has four pumps that can push water down the pipeline. Only three pumps run at a time, according to the Medford Water Commission. The pump station puts out about 4,000 gallons per minute.

In comparison, fire hydrants in Jackson County Fire District 5 use 850 gallons per minute on average, according to the district's fire chief Charles Hanley. Four open hydrants would basically take the rationed water's flow for Phoenix; a fifth hydrant would deplete it.

"That's difficult for me cause my inclinations if we have a fire, we want to put it out," Bustard said. "We don't, we don't want to sit there and let a fire burn and get bigger. And I know it was very hard for the community when they see that to understand that we're still doing everything we can, we're just limited by the water and the tools we have."

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