Piecemeal property development in the area means fire hydrant placement can be erratic.
In several spots, the hydrants line only one side of the road. If there's a blaze on the other side, firefighters must snake the hoses across the highway -- forcing a total shutdown.
Throw in commuters, shoppers and travelers, and any old emergency can seriously clog up one of Snohomish County's busiest north-south routes.
Firefighters work with police whenever they need to close some or all of the roadway, said Jerry Sheehan, a battalion chief with Snohomish County Fire District 1.
It's not a decision taken lightly, but emergency responders rarely have a choice, he said.
A big fire requires a small army, and most crews are assigned to oversized vehicles, such as fire engines and ladder trucks, he said.
A fire engine alone can take up a lane or two, and there's little parking for emergency vehicles along Highway 99, Sheehan said
Firefighters generally can't park on side streets or driveways, because the weight of the rigs could damage private property. If the ground isn't firm, the trucks could sink and get stuck.
They also can't let drivers roll over hoses, Sheehan said. Not only could the hoses and fittings damage cars, but the weight of a car could puncture the hose or damage it enough to burst on the next call.
"A broken hose, if you're near it when it goes off, can be fatal," he said.
Fire hydrants typically are installed by private developers, said Duane Huskey, development engineering manager at the Alderwood Water & Wastewater District.
Hydrant placement is guided by water district rules, fire codes and other laws and policies, he said. The hydrant system is set up one development or contract at a time. Standards change, so older developments may have different hydrant patterns than others.
Law enforcement officers who work traffic control at fires must gives the crews and their hoses a protective barrier, said trooper Keith Leary with the Washington State Patrol.
"We're making sure that their scene is safe, and they can get their job done as quickly as they can," he said.
Things get complicated when the fire call also is a crime scene, he said. Troopers then must make room for other officers, detectives or even federal agents.
People may underestimate how much time it takes to investigate an arson or the mess left when a driver crashes into a building, Leary said.
It's not like TV, where the police snap a few photos and close the case 45 minutes later, he said.
"It's not wham, bam, put out a fire and leave," he said.
Sometimes, drivers may make the traffic worse by not knowing alternate routes, he said. Troopers see it on freeways, too. People get used to taking one way home, and they have to ask officers for directions when their route is shut down.
Piecemeal fire hydrant placement is fairly common in Snohomish County, Sheehan said. The difference is that emergency responses on major highways or arterials affect more people and cause more of a stir.
Once everything is sorted out, Highway 99 fires tend to be easier than most, he said. Water pressure is strong in the area, and unlike on the freeway, hydrants are relatively close.
The stretch of Highway 99 between Everett and Lynnwood sees a sizable fire only every couple of years, he said. Most of the buildings are commercial and adhere to strict fire codes. Many have fire-suppression sprinklers installed.
And if drivers see flames, they do a pretty good job of giving firefighters room to work, he said.
"Highway 99 is actually a pretty simple place to have a fire," he said. "It can be inconvenient as all get out, but it is simple."
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If you take a highway between work and home, such as I-5 or Highway 99, learn a couple of alternate routes, said trooper Keith Leary with the Washington State Patrol. You're less likely to get trapped in a backup if you know how to get to other arterials.
If Highway 99 is restricted or closed between Lynnwood and Everett, people should take side streets to Airport Road or the Mukilteo Speedway, he said.
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