Fire fighting: how can we prepare for the next emergency?

I am lucky/unlucky to live on the the shore of Lake Michigan, where we have nearly unlimited water. But it might as well be the Sahara. None of it can be used to fight fires.

We are surrounded by thick pine forests. Pine, spruce and cedar forests, even when drenched with rain, are tinderboxes. Trees catch fire and burn in seconds. Not minutes, seconds. Even sparse, wet beach grass spreads fire like it was gasoline; I kid you not.

Recently, we have had some idiots who, armed with a spritzer of a garden hose or less, decide to burn some excess scrap wood on the beach. The beach, a few feet from their house. Poof! Everything within 3 feet, then 6 feet, then 90 feet, catches on fire. The volunteer fire department is called. They get here as fast as they can, which is 15 minutes, dump their load of water in 90 seconds, then run back to town to get more. That’s 30 minutes roundtrip. When they return, they find their hoses are 100 feet long and the fire is 200 feet away. So they load a few gallons of water in a backpack and trudge thru the woods to squirt a few drops on whatever they can. Plus some rakes and brooms. You can imagine how effective this is.

So far, of the fire calls of the last 20 years, about 80% have resulted in total losses of at least one house. Each time, the firemen shake their heads and say “You were lucky that’s all that burned.”

But Lake Michigan is staring us in the face. Googols of gallons of water. Enough to fight any number of fires simultaneously. But the fire trucks cannot pump more than 8 feet vertically and 200 feet horizontally, as they were designed for city hydrants. Hydrants we ain’t got, just gobs of water. Oodles and oodles of the wet stuff. Enough to drown in. But the trucks can’t get close enough to it; houses are in the way.

My fear is not groundless. In 1871, not far from here, a “tornado of fire” swept thru a nearby community on a freakish and windy night, and killed everything in its path – 800 people and many farm animals. The only people that survived were ones that jumped down a well. Since 1871, the only thing that has changed is there are now more people, more houses and not much less forest. It could happen again. If the power goes off, even garden hoses (connected to household wells & pumps) will be useless.

Yet there’s the lake. Fresh, clean, 100 feet away at best, 800 feet at most. Lots of H, lots of O. In just the right proportions of 2:1. Ideal.

So what can we do? Are there any devices the fire dept can get that can help us out? We found a $2700 booster pump that can be dropped in the water and boosts the pressure, but this requires 400’ of hose minimum (200’ X 2 directions) and doesn’t work well in sandy bottoms. Fire trucks can’t carry 400’ of hose, and we have a LOT of sandy bottoms. And the fire dept hasn’t deployed this device once in the 3 years since they bought it (dunno why).

Meanwhile, my fire insurance is paid up and my backpack is full of water. But I am open to ideas. Got any?

A fire boat?

Just thinking out loud until a better answer comes along: Couldn’t they attach some kind of float to the hose intake, so instead of drawing water from the lake bottom it would draw from just under the surface? And if one truck can’t carry 400 feet of hose, how 'bout two trucks carrying 200 each? And how 'bout stationing some back-up water supplies in critical areas? You wouldn’t need a lot more than a hole in the ground, a plastic pool liner and a cover.

This web site has a lot of fire-fighting equipment, including this floating portable pump:

Link doesn’t go to catalog page. Go to products, then pumps, then pumps-floating.

Or use this link.

Not sure where you’re getting your data, Musicat but from my own personal experience as a driver/operator, I’ve drafted up to around 18~19’ vertical lift, provided that the pump was well maintained and the primer could pull something close to 22" of vacuum.

Fire trucks can’t carry 400’ of hose? Since when? Most of the trucks I’ve operated have between 2 and 4 preconnects of 1 3/4" or 2" handlines, anywhere from 150’ to 200’ in length. The main bed usually carries between 750’ and 1250’ of 5" LDH (large diameter hose), and is supplemented with 300’ or more of 3" supply line which then connects to smaller handlines via a gated wye fitting.

Dry hydrants are an option, if water is of sufficient depth. Essentially it’s a heavy-duty PVC pipe which is installed at an accessible location and runs underground to the source of water, be it pond, lake, etc. They are quite common in rural areas, and some assistance programs are in place to help communities get them installed at a minimal cost.

Another option is Turbo Draft which will work in practically any situation involving a body of water to which you can stretch hose.

Thanks to everyone for the replies and suggestions. I’ll try to handle each. Some have been considered before and some are new to me.

A fireboat! Sounds like a great idea. We even have “The Chicago FireBoat” docked not far away as a tour boat. (I don’t know if it is still operable as a pumper – it’s a tourist attraction.) The problem would be getting it to the site in time (I estimate that would take most of an hour) and getting it close enough to shore without tearing the bottom out or crashing on the rocks should the lake be not calm. Remember – this is the same lake system that sank the 700’ Edmund Fitzgerald!

But on to more practical ideas. The road I live on is about 7 winding miles, narrow, and no way on or off except at the ends. We have considered installing a cistern roughly in the middle, and filling it on a non-emergency basis. It would have to be big enough for at least 3 truckloads. This would shorten the time it takes for water supply turnaround. We would have to find a landowner willing to give up enough high-priced land for an underground tank (to avoid frost) and truck loading space. Our neighborhood association owns a lot in the perfect spot, but it is swampy and the water table is so high it might be hard to sink a tank without having it float to the top. That’s something the engineers would have to tackle.

There is an indoor swimming pool not far away. The fire boys say they investigated using this in an emergency but found it wouldn’t work.

There is a dock at one end of the road. In years when the lake is high and the harbor has been dredged, they can drop a hose in there, but that cannot be relied upon year-round. And the hose will suck up sand, which doesn’t make them happy.

A dry hyrant has been considered. We have been told that it would be an installation and maintanence nightmare. The intake would have to be deep enough in the lake to keep from freezing, and far enough out to avoid waves. A pipe path would have to be blasted thru rock or dredged; expensive. Zebra mussels are rampant now, and clog intake pipes, so we would have to pay for a diving crew to clean it out periodically. And sand & gravel would clog it, too. The fire boys say this isn’t a workable idea here. Remember, any solution designed for a “pond” probably doesn’t consider conditions in Lake Mich, which is more ocean than pond. (Really!)

I really don’t know why the fire trucks can’t or won’t carry more hose. I don’t have any fire training or experience, but that’s what they tell me. And the last two fires we had close by, the hoses appeared to be stretched to the limit, yet they don’t get close to the beach. Perhaps the firemen were more optimistic than I, and didn’t want to stress the equipment more than necessary, and didn’t want to roll out stuff they had to put back later.

I believe that TurboDraft gadget is the one they purchased a few years ago, tried out, then haven’t used since. I suspect the setup is elaborate and time-consuming; twice as much hose has to be laid and again, the sand, waves and just getting the equipment down into the water is a task. Perhaps after the first house went up, if the fire wasn’t under control, they would unveil this arrangement. I don’t know, but I’d hate to find out the hard way.

The floating pump is an interesting idea, and the only one that doesn’t require hose running from a truck to the lake first. It would have worked great today, but on a windy, wavy day, I wouldn’t want to brave 6-ft waves to keep a floating pump floating and pumping. You’d need divers on the fire team in the worst case. And at least one floating model is 120 “lightweight” pounds, a 2-man operation. I can just see two guys stumbling down narrow steps and falling in the lake. And don’t forget, 6 months of the year the lake is chunky, rough ice of uncertain stability and thickness.

Danceswithcats, the 8-ft draft height max is what I was told by the fire boys. Perhaps bigger-city trucks are more powerful? Carry longer hose?

“Assistance programs”? Hmmm. Would this be federal funds? How would we apply for this kind of help?

We approached the old fire chief with this problem several years ago and got no solution. I think I will approach our new chief with the ideas here and the links, and do a video interview with him – he seems willing to talk. I’ll see what his answer is to each of these suggestions. Thanks, and keep 'em coming.

My personal favorite idea would be a water-scooping plane. A perfect environment for such. Do they make an ultralight version for ultralight budgets? :slight_smile:

Just to back up danceswithcats here, the theoretical maximum draft is 27’ and the practical maximum is 24’. Our little Type VI wildland rig could draft more than 8’!

Also, NFPA 1901 requires 800’ or more of 2.5" hose and 400’ or more of 1.5"( or 1.75") hose. While these aren’t requirements, there’s no reason a fire engine shouldn’t be carrying at least that much hose.

Now, here’s some opinion for you. It sounds like you’re concerned, so talk to the fire department. Is that the best they can do because their equipment is outdated? Do they not have enough money to buy more hose? I’m sure they’d love help with fundraisers and lobbying. Some other options include, a floating intake screen for the draft hose (sorry I can’t remember the exact name). This keeps it on top of the water so it’s not sucking sand and junk. My old department in Minnesota had a power ice auger on the engine so we could draft out of lakes in the winter. Lastly, you could consider buying a large portable pump (probably trailer mounted) that they could use to pump out of the lake.

Good luck and keep at it!

St. Urho

All of these ideas could be useful at times, but they are not universal in our case. The floating pump or intake screen solves one problem, but would need an anchor as well. Think dropping the stuff in ocean surf – would it stay where you put it? And the firemen would need waders or dry suits to get it in the water.

As far as a large portable pump, fine. If by large portable pump, you mean something a single man (or even a married one) can carry on his back down a narrow path, great. One problem we have is that in spite of the fact that all properties are adjacent to the water, there are no locations where you can drive right down to the edge; only footpaths near people’s houses.

The auger idea – again, this is not a pond, where you can count on 10 inches of smooth, skateable ice in January. Lake Mich is exposed to waves and the ice that forms is highly irregular, with mountains and ice volcanoes that break up and re-form. The ice can extend out for only a few feet, or several hundred, then break up the next hour. It would be very dangerous for anyone to assume it is a solid surface, and dropping a floating pump over the edge of an ice-cliff would be pretty icey-dicey.

In the past, when we talked to the firemen, no solution was forthcoming. Our town pays the nearest, next-door town $270,000 per year for fire coverage, and this amount has been going up every year, tied to property valuation. Still, we think it is cheaper than forming our own department.

Next week, I will contact our new fire chief and see if he wants to sit down for a videotaped interview. (I think he will; he’s been very approachable.) I’ll arrange all the questions from this thread and all the (reasonable!) suggestions in a questionaire to give him first. Perhaps I will then have a record we can refer to for answers.

Just to confirm what danceswithcats and St. Urho are saying, would you feel comfortable with running a large hose 400 feet from a pumper truck to a water source which might be a 15-foot vertical drop, then another 400 feet to the fire? There should be enough hose and enough pumping capacity on a typical fire truck to handle this kind of operation? And what kind of manpower would this require? We rely on a mix of full-time, part-time and volunteer firemen and nearby, but all-volunteer communities are available to assist for big operations.

The answer depends on how things are set up. One truck couldn’t draft from a water source 400’ away. Instead, what is set up is called a relay. The engine at the water source accomplishes the lift of 15’ and then pumps via large diameter hose, or smaller diameters in parallel, the 400’ to another engine. The second engine boosts pressure, if needed, and sends the water on to either the attack lines or the next engine. I’ve already pumped in a relay that exceeded a half-mile.
Setting it up only takes one person to drag the line off, and the other to drive the truck. Setting up hard sleeve for drafting is better done with a crew of 4. I’m also assuming proper training, as in FF1 and FF2 certification as a minimum.

You can possibly get some help from the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland with the underground tank concept. Some career firefighters that I know from there spoke of large capacity tanks installed by developers in lieu of a hydrant system. They also have similar high water table issues, being right on the Chesapeake Bay.

I didn’t anticipate waves as you describe them. The Turbodraft works best on relatively calm water.

Regarding sources for funding: The US Fire Administration, as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees grant applications on an annual basis. The Chief should be aware of that program as it’s been going on for several years. Your State may have their own grant program. I wrote a grant application for my department, and found out earlier this month that we’re getting >$13K for the project submitted. Chat up your elected State and Federal representatives. If there is a problem to be solved, and they can get a good photo op, they may have a box o’ money sitting around their office to kick your way. It is election time, you know? :smiley:

I’m no expert, but…

How important is appearance? Considering the rock, ice and zebra mussels, it might be better to run a dry hydrant above ground and above the waterline on or under a dock. The inlet could be kept dry, then dropped a few feet under the water’s surface when needed. I suppose that you could keep a pike on the dock to break through the ice in winter.

Oops, I just looked at the pics. Maybe if you had a very big pike…

My favorite. A Northern Pike on the grill, just a little lemon butter…mmm… :slight_smile:

Cornflakes, the idea of the dry hydrant connection kept above water has merit. But only in the summer. There are places where a pipe could be swung over the cliff into deep water, but not ice. The only additional complication I didn’t mention is Lake Michigan’s water level varies over time plus or minus 3 feet. (It was at its 100-year low in 1964, its high in 1986.) If we could find just the right cliff where we could count on water whether it was a high or low year, that might work. And it would have to self-drain to keep from bursting in the winter.

Danceswithcats, good ideas about grant money, etc. I don’t want to insult our chief, so maybe I’ll see what he knows about this during our interview. An extra $13K or so wouldn’t hurt.

My guess is that longer hoses could be brought to play if needed, but given the relatively short duration of the fires we have had so far, the firemen took a wait and see attitude. If they can contain the blaze with shorter hoses, rakes and shovels, then they have less equipment to roll out and put away. This is quite disconcerting to homeowners who see a tree go up in 30 seconds while their house is 3 trees and a spark away.

I grew up in the dry West, where wildfires are an annual occurrence.

The solution to avoiding structure damage is simple. Clearcut a 100’ swath around all your structures. The forest burns, you don’t.

If you insist on trees and brush right up to your doorstep, your buildings WILL burn every time the surronding forest does. A full-up hydrant by your porch and a fully manned fire station next door can’t save you from a wildfire.

As more and more suburbanites move to the far wilderness, the cost of wildfires will keep climbing. The solution is not more air tankers out West, or complicated plumbing to the lake in your case. The solution is to keep the forests back from the houses.

Living out in the sticks you’ve got a decent amount of land around you; use some of it to buy some fire safety. The US Forest Service has been preaching this for decades, but the audience doesn’t want to hear the message; they want “nature” at their doorstep. And so they burn.

How high are you above the lake, Musicat? I’m on the primary dune just off the beach. The bluff is a quarter mile inland at our location. So when we need water from the lake, we cart a gas powered pump down to water’s edge, throw in a sand point attached to a hose at the distal end, and just pump the water up about 6 or 7 feet in elevation.

the sand point has always been very effective in drawing water, whether bounced by waves, buried in sand, or even getting a bit of seaweed on it.

Fortunately we haven’t had to do this since the bad times in '86 and 87 when the lake tried to eat our house.

Right now I’m trying to get used to the idea that trees are growing on my beach!!!

Good idea. NOT. If we all cleared 100’ radius around out houses, we would have no vegetation at all. No birds, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, porcupines, skunks, rabbits and foxes, either. My lot is only 112’ wide; I am less than 100’ from the road and 100’ from the beach. I might as well live in the desert. And I hate the desert.

It is also illegal to cut down all the trees on a lot, especially between a house and the lake, due to planning & zoning laws. This ain’t Arizona, Texas or Montana, fer chrisakes!

Most of us live here because of the forest, the lake(s), the isolation, the wilderness, the natural area. That doesn’t mean we have to let our houses burn down if there is another way to protect them. It does mean we have to take special precautions and prepare for the worst.

Qadgop, I suspect yours and my situation are similar. Same lake, for one. We have no rock bluffs, just high dunes close by and to the south for about 10 miles, but some neighbors to the north have 15’ cliffs of limestone with serious vertical drops to the lake. We also have few places (none, even) where you can drive to the edge of either; most paths are 6’ wide at max and are not guaranteed to be trimmed of vegetation. Our main road is a state-designated “Rustic Road,” and we like it that way. :slight_smile:

You may be able to see how far to the lake from my house (not all houses are like this, and mine is probably higher than average) in some historic and recent photos, all taken from the same window. (The most recent 2 are webcam-dynamic, and will change from day to day.) I would guess the horizontal distance to the lake varies from 60’ to 200’ depending on lake height and wave activity. Vertically, perhaps 15’ – others vary from 5’ to 25’ max. This sounds like a little higher than your location, and we need to take into consideration the height of a house, up to 35’ in this zoning district.

I’m intrigued by your idea of a sand point. Is this the same kind of sand point that we used to get from, say, a Sears catalog, pound into the ground, attach a section of pipe or so, then a jet pump, and call it a household water system? It would have a tapered, rounded end with a screen, I think.

At my location, if I wanted to invest in a $2000 pump, a cart and some hose, I could store it in my garage and roll it out when needed. If I am home and have help. If it is not winter. If the lake isn’t too low and the hose long enough. If it will shoot water 30 feet up. Not bad for a desperate idea, but what’ll my neighbors do? Our Association could foot the bill, but as we escalate this idea, it is beginning to look more like a government project. Maybe the fire dept isn’t such a bad arrangement after all. But I wish they would consider our special needs just a bit more.

Ah, isn’t Nature wonderful?

That’s OUR houses. Damn spelling checker, don’t know the diff between a goddam shithouse and the possessive for an abode.

Here’s the type of sand point I mean:
It appears similar to the type you describe. It’s not driven into the sand, but just thrown into the lake. If you do ever decide to drive it into the sand, do not try to drive it thru lake michigan sand via sledgehammer. We would jet it down with a hose.

And yeah, it’s not always real easy to do in a hurry. Perhaps your local fire dept. could get one of those helicopters that sucks up water from the lake, then drops it on the fire? :smiley:

The lake has risen this year, and is taking some of those nice little dunelets and vegatation patches out! I’m bummed. I really long for the beach of my early years, back in '64 before the alewives died off, and when the sand went on just forever!

Rural living has its pleasures, but comes at a cost. I guess the final best defense is a paid-up home insurance policy.

That’s the ticket. I think that was designed to be used as our original water system was built. After the basement was dug, a sand point was pounded into the ground. Then a section of pipe was added, and pounded in further. The process was repeated until it reached 27 feet, when we had all the water we wanted. A jet pump was attached, the house was built over it, and that was that, for 30 years. When it clogged up, we were forced by law to drill a 330’ deep well outside the house with a deep-well pump at the bottom.

I wasn’t suggesting that it be pounded into the lake as a fire-pump intake. Probably the screen is what would make it work for that, floating or sitting temporarily on the bottom.

Yeah, just a mini-copter, and ultra-light. Suck, dump. Suck, dump. There’s gotta be a market for this kind of gadget, eh?

What, no lampreys and zebras? Ya can’t please everyone. I’ll bet you have more algae than ever, too, and some large accumulations stink, right? Not to mention the mosquito explosion this year. Paradise sucks. At least we don’t have bombs in our front yards.