A shot of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department engine in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin with the portable tank called the basket set up next to it on the only flattish spot available -- the road.

You may not know exactly where your fire department would go for water if your house were on fire. But you can be sure your insurance company knows your proximity to a fire station and the nearest hydrant. Because they know it takes water to put out structure fires — generally more than what’s on board a rural fire department’s trucks when they respond.

Wildland firefighting is a bit different so we’ll look at that in an upcoming article. For now, let’s focus on water for structure fires.

You wouldn’t think water supply would be such an issue in many areas. Where I live, for example, there’s a river about a mile behind my house, a good creek a mile the other direction, and three large lakes within a 10-mile radius. That’s all well and good for fishing. But if your house is burning, getting water for fire suppression and to protect other exposures is still a major challenge. 

I say this from experience. In 2002, after we built our new house, five area volunteer fire departments came to use our old farmhouse for a training exercise called a controlled burn. Before the first match was struck they set up a portable pump in the river by the fire station, less than two miles away. There were three tenders (tanker trucks) on hand to move water from that fill site to our location, where firefighters were ready to protect our new home, another building, and a propane tank. A great deal of planning went into making it a safe experience. And still we nearly ran out of water: So many passers-by, drawn like moths to flame, were parked along the road that the tenders had trouble getting into our driveway to deliver their water.

Training exercises like that help fire departments plan on the fly when we’re called to an unplanned structure fire. Even before the first person on the scene can radio a size-up of the situation, officers are calling for additional tenders from our mutual aid partners and running through a mental catalog of potential fill sites. Because unless the structure is right on a body of water, we will have to shuttle water from a fill site to the scene.

The Town of Wolf River (118.8 square miles) has two dry hydrants. Those are unpressurized stand pipes permanently installed at a reliable water source. In addition, we’re equipped to set up a portable pump to draw water from any lake or stream that’s closer and accessible. There’s also an ice auger hanging in the station just in case all our options are frozen. And we have an automatic mutual aid agreement with the Village of White Lake so the hydrants connected to their municipal water system are available to us.

It may not look like much more than a stand pipe and a wide spot, but a well-placed dry hydrant cuts down the distance a rural fire department has to travel for water while fighting a blaze.

Fighting a fire in an average-size single-family dwelling takes about 250 to 300 gallons of water per minute and around 2,500 gallons total. For a larger home, that might be closer to 500 gallons per minute and 10,000 gallons total. Our tender holds 3,000 gallons. Each mile you have to travel between the scene and a fill site translates into a time factor that reduces gallons per minute available to fight the fire and protect other exposures. So on most structure fire dispatches, the chief is requesting additional tenders from our mutual aid partners before he even reaches the scene. The goal is to have a water shuttle moving as soon as possible. 

For our department, here’s what that shuttle looks: Our tender dumps its water into the large portable tank we set up for the engine to draft from, then pulls away to go to the fill site for another load. While that tender is gone, other departments’ tenders tag in to the relay. Last year my husband ran the fill site at a mutual aid call for a neighboring department. With three tenders, he estimates they moved 30,000 gallons of water from a dry hydrant three miles from the scene of a structure fire. That was in daylight with good roads.

By comparison, for a machine shed fire a while back, our fill site was only half a mile away in the lake with a large boat landing. But it was night, and the road was curvy and narrow. It took tenders at least 30 minutes to empty, get to the fill site, load 3,000 gallons, get back to the scene, and make a Y-turn to back up to the portable tank.

A couple years ago we were paged out in the wee hours of the morning to an active fire at a house just up the road from us. Fifteen years earlier for the controlled burn on our old farmhouse, the fill site (a portable pump in the river) was set up in advance. That was in May. This was November — cold, snow on the ground, ice on the river. So this time, we shuttled water from hydrants in the village. That added another eight miles, making the round trip for tenders in the shuttle about 14 miles not counting the driveway. It was long and narrow with a dogleg turn in the middle. It took about 45 minutes for tenders to dump, reach a hydrant, fill, return, and back down that driveway to dump again. My husband did that run twice in the dark and once more after the sun came up. The guy who owns the local towing service showed up to direct traffic on the highway so those tenders had a clear path in and out of that driveway. 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2018 fires in one- and two-family homes caused $6.9 billion in direct property damage. Insurance companies don’t like those kinds of losses. So in rural areas where we’re liable to live more than 1,000 feet from a hydrant and more than five miles from a fire station, we pay more for insurance. And there’s not much we can do about that.

What you can do is support your local volunteers fire department when they’re raising funds for things like ultra-high-pressure response units and compressed air foam systems, or asking to install more dry hydrants or sign aid agreements with municipalities that have hydrants. You can help dig out those hydrants after it snows, and not park in the handy spot by the dry hydrant when you want to fish the creek. Above all, you can pull over when that tender races by, and be looking for the next one in the shuttle queue.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin.

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