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North Yarmouth fire prompts demand for information from water district

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North Yarmouth fire prompts demand for information from water district

NORTH YARMOUTH — Town officials want more information from the Yarmouth Water District after firefighters encountered a malfunctioning hydrant at the Aug. 29 Wescustogo Hall fire.

Arson is not suspected in the fire, which destroyed the six-decade-old centerpiece of the community, but a cause has not been determined.

Fire Chief Ricky Plummer has said the blaze was fully involved by the time firefighters got the call at 11:57 p.m. on Aug. 29. He said the first hydrant firefighters tried to use, in close proximity to the 475 Walnut Hill Road (Route 115) building, could not be opened all the way. Two other hydrants nearby functioned properly.

Although water flow from the hydrant was limited, Plummer said its condition did not make a difference in how effectively the fire was fought.

"The building was already gone before we got there," he said. "We could have had all the hydrants in the world, and had 100 pounds of pressure coming out of every one and had a million-gallon tank, and it wouldn't have made a difference."

Difficulty with a hydrant "could happen any time," Plummer said. "You could check one today, and then tomorrow, something could be wrong with it."

He also said that no matter how many hydrants are used, only so much water can flow through the town's 12-inch main.

Nonetheless, Plummer and Board of Selectmen Chairman Steve Palmer sent a request for more information to the water district.

"The Board of Selectmen in conjunction with the Fire Chief would like to request additional information so that they can determine a clearer picture of the fire protection situation in North Yarmouth as provided by the Yarmouth Water District's fire hydrant system," the Sept. 5 letter said.

Among the information requested was a list of the town's hydrants, and their locations and type. Plummer said he had already received the information from water district Superintendent Bob MacKinnon by Friday, Sept. 6.

"Now as a department we'll go out and look at all the hydrants and probably identity the ones that are different ... so that we know ahead of time, rather than find out afterwards," Plummer said. "But it's kind of a learning curve; we don't use the hydrants that often."

He said he has been told replacing the different hydrants would cost thousands of dollars each.

The letter also requested water flow test results and maintenance logs for each hydrant. Plummer said he has received the test results, which show a performance range of about 1,200 gallons per minute to about 3,700 gallons per minute. A good hydrant releases at least 1,000 gallons per minute, he said.

MacKinnon does not have logs with dates of routine maintenance checks, but said Thursday that employee time sheets could show when work was done in North Yarmouth. Plummer said North Yarmouth wants to see such logs going forward.

"What is normally done with hydrants, (is that) they are flowed, flushed, twice a year," MacKinnon said, noting that the malfunctioning hydrant would have been flushed this spring, and "that's when you hopefully find any problems."

Hydrants can be difficult to open, he said, and when something is wrong it is the water district's responsibility to correct.

North Yarmouth draws its water from a main that runs from a 200,000-gallon tank on Delwin Drive. The town's hydrants tap into that pipe. The tank gets its water from a well on Sweetser Road.

The Wescustogo Hall blaze used nearly 134,000 gallons of water. The tank was about 82 percent full when firefighters started drawing water, and the level dropped to about 20 percent after 3:15 a.m. Aug. 30, according to a chart provided by MacKinnon.

The tank normally fluctuates between about 80 percent and 92 percent, he said, and is considered full at about 96 percent. The refill cycle starts if a tank gets down to 63 percent.

Water refills the tank at about 150 gallons a minute, Plummer said. But when it is being drained at about 20 times that in the case of a big fire, the water level can decrease quickly.

"That's why you have a big tank," Plummer said. "If we can't put a fire out with 200,000 gallons of water, then something's wrong."

"The system did what it was supposed to," MacKinnon said, noting that "the pumping's designed to meet your maximum day demand, and your tank's meant to be the buffer for these big events."

He said a fire chief must be aware of his resources. 

"At what point do you supplement a supply for something independent, whether it's tankers coming in and shuttling, or even other systems? Because every system's got limitations," he said.

Plummer has "a good handle on it," MacKinnon said. "He knows he needs to call us when he's got a big event."

Plummer noted that the issue is not with the system, but rather with the hydrant, which the water district will either repair or replace.

"The system is the system," Plummer said. "There's nothing we can do with that. It was put in in the late '60s, early '70s, and it is what it is. We have to work around that."

The town is also seeking a disaster preparedness plan from the water district for North Yarmouth incidents.

"When the Board and the Fire Chief have reviewed the information, they will most likely be requesting a meeting with you," the letter stated. "We are hopeful to receive this information within the next week."

Plummer noted that in future major fires, the town will likely call in a strike team of tankers, a big source of water to supplement the hydrant system. The water district also receives an alarm when the water drops to a certain point, but the town plans to alert the district immediately in the case of any major fire.

The chief said he plans to report back to the Board of Selectmen on the matter later this month.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.