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Hydrant not responsible for house loss

City implements solutions to prevent recurrence of stuck cap

Staff writer

Countering eyewitness testimony from Leroy Wetta at the last Peabody city council meeting following a house fire on April 7, fire chief Mark Penner confirmed Friday that while yes, there was a malfunctioning hydrant, it had no direct effect on the severity of the fire or quickness with which it spread. The fire resulted in the total loss Chris Litton and Julia Mosqueda’s home in the 700 block of N. Walnut St.

According to Penner, when crews arrived on scene Litton was in the process of cutting a hole in his roof with a chain saw, as an attempt to keep the fire contained to one area of the home.

“The hydrant being froze up, or whatever, didn’t have anything to do with the house going up as quickly as it did,” Penner said. “The resident cut the roof. You basically have three ingredients for fire: fuel, heat, and oxygen. If you take one away, no fire. If you have two and add one more, you have fire.”

Penner said that in some situations cutting the hole would have done what Litton had intended. However, it did the opposite in this case by adding oxygen to the fire.

Penner explained that the state fire marshal assisted with the investigation and they both agreed that cutting the hole in the roof made the situation worse.

“In his mind he thought he was doing the right thing,” Penner said. It actually did the opposite by allowing it to breathe.”

Wetta’s prepared statement to council claimed there was no water for the first several minutes first responders were on scene, due to the malfunctioning hydrant.

Penner disputed that, explaining that one of the first trucks to arrive did have water, which was immediately administered to the burning building.

“There are 1,000 gallons on the truck you can use immediately, which we did, but you always want to hook up to a hydrant to have as much water as possible,” he said. “We were pumping water before the hydrant was ever hooked up.”

The hydrant was reported to have a stuck cap making it extremely difficult to get open. Although it had no correlation with the severity of the fire, it still left citizens concerned.

Peabody public works director Ronnie Harms said at the council meeting that while there is a maintenance plan for the fire hydrants, the department had lapsed in checking them.

Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee said that in Hillsboro, the water department tests the hydrants to make sure they’re working properly.

“They go around and exercise all of the hydrants. They (hydrants) probably don’t all get exercised once a year, but over the course of two or three years.”

Like Kansas, states that have the possibility of freezing, use a dry barrel fire hydrant design with a valve located underground below the freeze line to prevent valves freezing and getting stuck.

Despite the lack of hydrants on his end of the county, Lincolnville fire chief Lester Kaiser explained the workings of hydrants when asked Thursday.

“There’s a valve and stem at the bottom of the barrel that opens and allows water to come out,” he said. “When you close it there’s a weep hole that allows it to drain out so it doesn’t freeze.”

Penner said that he would like to start implementing fire hydrant maintenance into training for new volunteers on the department.

“I plan on checking in with Ronnie Harms and checking the hydrants once or twice a year,” he said. “We can do that on our training nights as part of a training benefit for new guys.”

Mayor Larry Larsen said Tuesday that he supported this idea.

“I think (maintenance of hydrants) is the city’s responsibility number one,” he said. “But I also think if the fire department, as part of training as a new firefighter coming on, or as continued education, wants to make sure everyone knows how to use a hydrant, that’s a blessing as well. The fire department is there for fire suppression and to save lives as far as we’re concerned at the city. We owe it to the citizens to allow the fire department to do their job unrestricted by pulling up to any hydrant and it will work.”

According to Larsen, Wetta’s plea to city council members sparked an immediate reaction from city workers.

“The very next day after Mr. Wetta came to the council meeting, Ronnie directed Lucas (city worker) to go to every fire hydrant in town to ensure that all of those caps can be used to hook up a hose and meet specific needs of a firefighter,” he said. “There’s no doubt in mind that they could go to any side of any fire hydrant to get water and it would work.”

Larsen also said that the city has created a new policy concerning the maintenance of hydrants in light of the unfortunate house fire.

“We’ve created a policy within the city to exercise all hydrants and remove all caps semi-annually just to make sure everything is working good,” he said.

Last modified April 19, 2018

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