House fire highlights Scotia low-water issue

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Linda Gibbons stands in front of her house at 33 Washington Ave. in Scotia on Friday. The house, which burned on Labor Day weekend, is tarped and condemned. Neighbors say lack of water hindered firefighting efforts.

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Linda Gibbons stands in front of her house at 33 Washington Ave. in Scotia on Friday. The house, which burned on Labor Day weekend, is tarped and condemned. Neighbors say lack of water hindered firefighting efforts.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCOTIA — When the two-family house at 33 Washington Ave. caught fire on Sept. 5, neighbors watched as Scotia village firefighters arrived, but when the nozzle on an elevated ladder truck was turned on, the hose firefighters were using on the ground lost pressure.

“The ground line went dry, and they started just using the ladder,” said next-door neighbor David Rosenberg, who remains angry about the lack of sufficient water more than a month after the fire, which caused the roof to collapse and did enough interior damage that the house was condemned.

Rosenberg, who works in the private water industry, said he became aware of a water supply issue on the street about a month earlier, when village hydrant flushing caused a drop in water pressure in his home. He then found out the village was already aware of a potential issue there, though nothing had been done because of the cost.

But most neighbors were unaware of any problem prior to the blaze, which was the biggest fire on the street — where houses are close together — in decades.

“It’s just been a nightmare,” said the homeowner, Linda Gibbons, a senior citizen and widow who has owned 33 Washington for 29 years. “All because of a fire that should have been put out quicker if they had had appropriate water. The whole street is upset about this. If there had been some wind that night, the whole neighborhood could have gone.”

Mayor Thomas Gifford acknowledged there is an issue and the village has known it, but he said a permanent fix — connecting the dead-end six-inch line to another water line so water loops from both directions — would have cost $200,000 when the village got an estimate five years ago, and would be more expensive now.

“The water line there, and it’s been there for 100 years, the water line there is small,” Gifford said. “It’s up to code, but it is difficult to get a large amount of water through it in a short amount of time.”

During the fire, he said, “we were overtaxing it from time to time.” The fire pumps would drain the line, he said, though water then would return to the line after a short time.

Gifford has himself been a village volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years, and was on the scene for the entire five hours of the firefighting effort that night. The 1,500 gallon-per-minute ladder truck was used after interior firefighters were pulled out of the building, he said, so not having enough water for an interior attack didn’t make any difference. The fire was concentrated in the attic, he said, so an aerial attack on it made sense.

“Once you’re fighting it from the outside, you’re using an enormous amount of water,” Gifford said. “We’re convinced it didn’t have any impact on the firefighting effort.”

Since the fire, the village Fire Department has started looking at the feasibility of installing a “dry hydrant” on nearby Collins Lake to serve as a second water supply if there were another fire on Washington Avenue. A dry hydrant doesn’t have water in it, but is sunk into the lake, so firefighters could pump water from the lake through it in an emergency.

A dry hydrant pump-through is a situation Gifford acknowledged firefighters would need to train for, since in the village they are used to getting water from hydrants rather than from lakes and ponds — something firefighters in more rural areas sometimes do.

The mayor said a village meeting is tentatively being planned for Monday, Nov. 2, to talk with the neighbors about what the village plans to do to address the situation.

Some neighbors think a dry hydrant in Collins Lake would help, but don’t want it to be the permanent solution to the problem.

“As a stop-gap, fine, but I don’t think it should be a permanent solution,” said Sue Green, who lives two doors down from the fire scene.

About 15 neighborhood residents attended the Oct. 14 Village Board meeting to express their concerns.

“We knew sometimes the water pressure wasn’t great, like you couldn’t run the dishwasher and take a shower at the same time, but I thought maybe it was because I have an older house,” Green said. “I’m very upset with the situation. We pay taxes, but when there’s a fire, they come and they can only have one hose working. As a taxpayer, I think $300,000, well the hell, get it fixed.”

Gibbons, who is in the midst of grappling with insurance issues and possible asbestos and mold issues due to water damage, said taking water from the lake is better than doing nothing.

“That would have helped. Anything would have helped,” said Gibbons, who is staying with a relative.

The fire, which appears to have been electrical in origin, did not cause any injuries.

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