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Running on Empty : Emergencies: Water district can't afford equipment that would help fight a blaze like last year's firestorm.


A year after a fire destroyed 126 homes in the Altadena area, the tiny Kinneloa Irrigation District, which suffered water shortages that may have contributed to the damage, cannot afford the equipment that would prevent a similar disaster.

Hydrants dried up after water tanks in the upper part of the region were depleted, and pumps that could have refilled them failed when the fire tore through electric lines. The small, semiprivate district still has no new tanks, pumps or backup generators. The district's manager, Gene W. Burt, said the district cannot afford to purchase the costly equipment itself. However, its board is working with other agencies to develop plans for emergencies, and the district has applied for state and federal grants to build extra water tanks.

The district formerly served 550 homes, but lost 120 homes to the fire--nearly all of the houses that burned in the Altadena blaze. The three highest tanks in the district hold a total of less than half a million gallons--plenty for residential use, but not enough for a firestorm, said Chris Burt, the district's facilities supervisor and Gene Burt's son.

And when flames severed electric lines, water could not be pumped uphill from the lower reservoirs to the empty tanks. By the time two auxiliary generators borrowed from Southern California Edison restored the water pressure--about eight hours later--nearly a quarter of the homes had burned.

Downey Fire Department Battalion Chief Gail Crook, who was supervising a crew when the hoses ran dry, said recently that he saw serious flaws with the area's water supply.

"The system wasn't designed for such a large fire," he said. "Their supply was not adequate to keep those engines all being supplied up there."

Gene Burt, however, said there is no chance the district will purchase the backup generators by itself.

Chris Burt added that even if the generators worked the pumps, which are designed for residential use, could not provide the volume of water needed to fight a blaze such as last year's firestorm.

And the district cannot afford generators or larger pumps and tanks, Gene Burt said.

"The equipment costs around $40,000 per unit," he said. "We would need five."

The annual budget for the district is about $500,000, Burt said.

"The public won't stand for the charge that we'd have to make."

He said the district has arranged with other agencies to rent generators in an emergency.

"We have the availability of leasing that equipment now," he said. "And we've also modified our facilities to accept the input from the generators."

"We could probably get equipment within 10 hours," he said. "But we could always rely upon Edison to give us support, which they did last time."

Crook said, though, that 10 hours would be far too late in an inferno such as last year's.

"The homes were burned within hours," he said "Ten hours and there won't be anything there."

Linda Williams, president of the Pasadena Glen Improvement Assn., which represents a small, canyon community devastated by the fire, said the district is doing its best to restore what was damaged in the blaze.

"Right now they're still recovering from the fire," she said.

The district has fireproofed the new power shed in an attempt to avert the kind of electrical failure that happened last year.

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