Crews were challenged by a winding, one-lane private road that was too narrow for their biggest rig. The closest fire hydrant was 1,200 feet away. By the time someone called 911, flames were shooting from every side of the house.
Neighbors who live along and near 88th Street SW met at Mukilteo Fire Station 25 on Dec. 12 to share their concerns with firefighters, city officials and the local water district. They wanted to know what the fire department could do to get water spraying faster if flames erupted in their homes.
The answer: not much.
The tense-at-times public discussion hit on issues faced by emergency responders throughout Snohomish County. The fire happened on a steep waterfront bluff, where development predates annexation -- and modern codes designed to keep people and property safe.
The area is prone to landslides that can wash out roads and pipes. Some of the roads there are private, so the local water district can't force homeowners to pay for public water and hydrants. In addition, an error on the fire departments' shared maps complicated efforts to fight the blaze. Documents obtained by The Herald show that neighbors in the 1970s and 1980s considered creating a shared payment plan to join the water district and get hydrants. That didn't happen. Many folks still are on wells.
Neighbors requested the Dec. 12 meeting with officials in a letter to the fire chief three days after the fire.
The two-alarm Nov. 20 fire was reported at 9:44 a.m. in a 1940s-vintage house. The homeowners at the scene told investigators they'd plugged in a space heater for the first time, most likely too near to a couch.
The house was too badly burned to pinpoint the fire's exact cause, Mukilteo Fire Marshal Jim Thomas said. The fire was ruled an accident.
The firefighters played for the neighbors recordings of three 911 calls reporting the fire.
About 90 seconds before those calls, the six on-duty Mukilteo firefighters had raced to an unrelated medical emergency that was reported as a life-or-death situation, officials said at the meeting.
Snohomish County Fire District 1, which serves most of southwest county, responded first to the Mukilteo fire.
Fire departments operate under aid agreements that allow neighboring crews to respond to emergencies, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.
Maps shared by south county fire departments showed a hydrant closer to the burning house. When crews arrived, they found a 2.5-inch pipe sticking out of the ground. It was unusable.
In addition, Fire District 1 folks weren't as familiar with the neighborhood as Mukilteo crews.
After the fire, Mukilteo, Lynnwood and Fire District 1's leaders went over their maps. They're working to update the maps for the area where the fire happened, Mukilteo Assistant Fire Chief Brian McMahan said. They also want to review all of their maps together to prevent similar problems.
"We're all working off the same sheet of music," he said.
Fire District 1 and Mukilteo share a ladder truck as part of a contract to save money. The 39-foot truck got stuck at a hairpin curve, creating a delay of three to four minutes. The ladder truck driver then radioed to everyone else to take a detour, a longer route along 91st Place SW. That curve in the road would not be allowed these days, McMahan said.
As the fire burned, the homeowner told emergency dispatchers that everyone was out safely. That information was passed along to crews, Mukilteo fire training Capt. Blake Engnes said.
When firefighters got on scene, about 10 minutes after the first 911 call, the blaze was well under way. At that point, the damage to the home was obvious and extensive, Engnes said. Crews first had to make sure the fire didn't spread to two neighboring houses, he said.
Then, there was the lack of water.
The first rig to get close to the house carried only 500 gallons on board, McMahan said. Firefighters typically can spray between 125 and 1,000 gallons of water per minute.
"They would not have been able to put the fire out with that amount of water," he said.
Instead, crews began connecting rigs and fire hoses to ferry water from the closest hydrant, 1,200 feet away.
The same challenges exist at fires in rural or private areas of the county that lack hydrants. Rural departments here keep a special kind of engine, called a tender. Its primary purpose is carrying a lot of water.
Even so, some areas and beaches are simply unreachable, McMahan said.
Fire District 1 also has challenging geography and roads, said Mark Correira, the district's assistant chief of operations. Remote areas, private-access roads and narrow private driveways can be difficult, he said. In wet weather, mudslides and downed trees further complicate matters.
"The fire engines are our toolboxes, and that's what we need to get as close as possible to work from them," he said.
Fire District 1 encourages people to keep trees trimmed away from roads and driveways, and to make sure their addresses are clearly visible from the street. Fire prevention is the most important step, Correira said.
The area surrounding 88th Street SW was annexed into Mukilteo in 1980, according to a map provided by the city.
Meanwhile, documents show that at least once in the '80s, the Smugglers Gulch Community Association, made up of homeowners who live off 88th Street SW, asked its members to consider creating a plan to put in water pipes and two fire hydrants.
The letter says the project would have made for "a safer place to live and possibly reduce your homeowners insurance."
Officials say these days, the cost of that project could top $1 million.
In most cases, modern codes require an 8-inch pipe to handle the pressure and flow from a fire hydrant, said Rick Matthews, project manager for the Mukilteo Water and Wastewater District.
In 2007, the water district added a fire hydrant along the public water line in the closest possible spot to that neighborhood, Matthews said. Records show a water main was built on 91st in the 1940s but washed out decades ago, before annexation.
Areas with unstable geography often prove problematic for pipes, Matthews said.
"It's a difficult situation," he said.
Jim Thomas, the city's fire marshal, told the neighbors at the meeting that without hydrants, their best bet would be installing fire-prevention sprinklers. Under current codes, sprinklers would be required for any new homes built there.
Mukilteo Mayor-elect Jennifer Gregerson attended the meeting, listening as neighbors complained about roads, slides, flooding and the water lines.
"I know that's something we have to continue to work on," she said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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