In fire’s wake, Holyoke officials say hydrants OK, but low water pressure a concern

  • A fire destroyed a house at 68 Fairfield Ave. in Holyoke on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/DAN CROWLEY

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2019 11:27:28 PM

HOLYOKE — A massive house fire on Fairfield Avenue on Sunday has raised questions about low water pressure in the city after firefighters went to adjacent streets to draw water to battle the blaze.

Firefighters had to draw water from hydrants on Nonotuck and Northampton streets after hydrants closer to the fire proved insufficient for their needs. In the aftermath of the fire, which destroyed the entire house in the Fairfield Avenue Historic District and left six people displaced, Mayor Alex Morse called for a complete audit of fire hydrants in the city. A Fire Department captain said the city’s water department would be looking into the issue, saying it didn’t hamper firefighting efforts but created extra work.

The cause of the fire was improperly extinguished smoking materials on the front porch, according to a joint investigation by the Holyoke Fire Department and state Fire Marshal’s Office. 

According to the city’s Water Works, though, the low-water pressure problem did not have to do with fire hydrants. It turns out that the weak water pressure on Fairfield Avenue is one of 22 high-priority areas that are slated for work in the next several years, including many water mains set for replacement in order to address capacity issues.

“It’s something we’ve been aware of for a long time,” said David Conti, the general manager of Holyoke Water Works. 

In 2018, the City Council approved a $13.4 million bond to address the longtime problem of low water flow in certain neighborhoods, Morse said in an interview Monday. He said that the water department had assured him every city fire hydrant is operable.

“I’ve asked the water department to obviously do another check as soon as possible,” Morse said. 

The city has almost 2,000 fire hydrants. Conti said that they are checked yearly, as well as after every use.

Conti said that the Fire Department has a list of areas with water pressure limitations and that nearby fire hydrants with sufficient water pressure have been marked with white caps.

“It is pretty rare. There are only a handful of areas where this problem exists in the city,” Conti said. “Under those circumstances, the Fire Department would have to go a significant distance — up to 100 feet away — to connect to a fire hydrant that has the capability of fighting a fire of that magnitude.”

The problem, Conti said, is that some pipes in the city are 100 years old. Inside those pipes, tuberculation — the buildup of mounds of rust — shrinks the diameter of the pipe, limiting water pressure.

“Every city, every community is going to have areas where they have limitations,” Conti said.

Conti said the problem areas were not addressed in previous years because the city was paying off a bond for several state-mandated capital projects.

“Now that these state projects have been paid off, these bonds have matured, immediately we went to developing a priority schedule to identify these areas so the city could get on board and replace these water mains,” Conti said.

The replacement projects are now in their design phase, and should be completed in two or three years, Conti said. The bond will go toward paying for the 22 projects identified as “high priority,” but not 14 other projects that are considered either “medium priority” or “low priority.”

In the meantime, Conti said the water department will need to sit down with the Fire Department to make sure they remember which areas have low water pressure. Morse said that the city would pu t together a comprehensive map of those areas.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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