A lightning strike caused the fire that burned the $700,000 structure, according to Bartow County Fire Chief Craig Millsap, whose agency sent five engines to fight the blaze where no hydrant was available.
“The thing to bear in mind is, it doesn’t mean there’s not county water there, it just isn’t a sufficient line to provide fire protection or have hydrants,” Millsap said. “They may still be on county water as far as their drinking and all the stuff like that; the infrastructure just isn’t good enough or upgraded enough to be able to have those hydrants and those things for fire protection.”
Neighbors praise the work of Bartow County firefighters who shuttled water from the closest hydrant for hours, pumping 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of water onto the house in an attempt to save as much of the structure and surrounding area as possible.
The majority of Bartow’s 900 miles of water line are 6-inch pipes or above, but 60 to 80 miles of 2- or 4-inch line remain.
“Six-inch is the minimum to support a hydrant and support fire flow,” County Administrator Peter Olson said. “So Hidden Valley where this occurred, off Center Road, is right here. … Center Road has a … 16-inch line and off of Hidden Valley is a 2-inch line that a particular homeowner paid for to put in many years ago, and that only goes so far because 2-inch line can only support five or six homes. So those folks all built out beyond any water service.”
To replace the smaller existing lines with the 6-inch minimum costs roughly $25 per foot, Water Department Director Gene Camp said, and that does not take into account the potential need for a pump station or tank, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Gene tries to upgrade the 2-inches every year. He tries to upgrade a few miles of that line,” Olson said. “… It’s been operating as an enterprise fund, so it funds mostly its own expansion. There is money put into the [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax] for some projects, but basically Gene’s goal is only to extend service to where it will pay for itself. If there’s two customers and we’ve got to run 3,000 feet of line to get to them, that’ll never support it. Plus, if you go out to a very rural area, besides just running the line, you’ve got to have the rest of the infrastructure to support it. You’ve got to have adequate tanks nearby, maybe pump stations, et cetera. Those are the problems.”
Camp said the department receives far fewer complaints than in decades past, citing Woodland Way as one of the few remaining areas with problems because the lots are above the system’s elevation.
“A couple of things we have to look at is the elevation factor. If we’re too high, if we build our tanks too high, then folks along the valleys, along the creeks, they’re getting blown out of the water,” he said. “We have water quality problems too if we build our tanks too big and not rotating the fresh water in, and then we have water quality problems. So what we do with all of our tanks now, we build a size that will accommodate us for 10 years. But we also buy enough property beside it to build another tank in 10 years. That’s been our plan for the last five to six years. We’re going to build a tank we leave room to build another tank later on.”
Property owners in the rural portions of the county may seek the quiet and seclusion, but issues may arise from the lack of county infrastructure.
“So you’ve got areas of the county where people have, we’ve never had water and we don’t stop people from building. That’s a choice people make,” Olson said. “… So, if you choose to decide on a big house out on one of those roads, that’s your choice. Unfortunately, I don’t know that people always think about infrastructure. They probably figure … there’s water everywhere until they get that first insurance bill and they’re in a class 10 on ISO because they’re not within 5 miles of a fire station or within 1,000 feet of water or whatever.”
The ISO rates the county on a 100 scale with fire receiving 50, water 40 and 911 10. In October, ISO will re-evaluate the county under a new scheme.
“They look at the number of engine companies we have. They look at the training. They look at the water system,” Millsap said. “What that means is, if you’re within 5 driving miles from the corner of your structure that’s nearest your driveway to the corner of my fire station that’s nearest our driveway is less than 5 miles and you’re within 1,000 [feet] of a fire hydrant, from that fire hydrant in a direct line to your structure without anything blocking it, then you will get the best rating, which is a 5. Now if you’re within that 5 miles of a fire station but you don’t have the water there, then you become a 9.
“If you’re not within the 5 miles of the fire station, you automatically go to a 10, which is the top rating. With the technology of today a lot of people that have been misrated over the years; they are redoing all the stuff that has went with that and there has been a lot of things changed.”
A county initiative will pressure test the roughly 4,000 hydrants in Bartow, which will improve the ISO rating. Hydrants are placed 1,000 feet apart, according to Camp, and the department works to add hydrants each year at a cost of about $3,500 each.
Even without a hydrant immediately accessible to the structure, Millsap said BCFD can battle a blaze.
“Granted, having the hydrant there helps us, but we understand because … this system develops out and has been since the start of Bartow County Fire Department, our operations are geared to take that into account. That’s why each one of my trucks arrives with 1,000 gallons of water already on it,” he said. “Each residential fire, there’s three stations or three trucks coming immediately. The first arriving officer that sees that there’s need for more water, as in [the Sunset Drive] case, requests additional trucks so there’s even more water that’s coming. So initial firefighting operations, which would be life safety’s first, second is property protection. So those things start immediately.”
“Now granted, the further away it is to the next hydrant like that … means we’re having to use extra trucks while that’s taking place, which leaves other areas of the county somewhat uncovered. The extra manpower it takes to do those things, but that’s part of our normal operations, our normal standard procedures,” Millsap continued.
Bartow County Fire Department last year responded to 139 structure fires in the thousands of calls worked by BCFD crews, which means one every 2.63 days. The recession cut into plans to construct new stations in the more rural parts of the county, including the area around Barnsley Resort.
“You have to also understand, our stations are strategically placed because of population density. We know there’s a need for stations in other areas and things, but that’s money. A lot of stuff we’ve luckily been able to do with SPLOST. SPLOST has been a godsend throughout this entire recession,” Millsap said. “… Those areas that we’ve identified like that are on the books for future development when it’s possible to do it.”