Top, 7:25 a.m. on Idaho Trail as house bursts into flame Sunday, Oct. 18. Bottom (l-r), Farnum’s car was in the garage where the heat was so intense it could be felt across the street. The car is destroyed. A view from the Termino Trail, as workers seal off the holes in the roof and the exploded windows to secure the house until Farnum decides whether to repair or to rebuild.
Fire Hydrant, Water Pressure, Firefighter Questions Raised
By Patric Hedlund
Stacey Balbona heard two large “booms,” shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday morning, Oct. 18. The second one shook the side of her house. She ran to the door and saw flames leaping from the roof of her neighbor’s garage at the very end of Idaho Trail in Frazier Park. She quickly called 911. Blanche Farnum, a widow who lives alone, emerged from the front door of her burning home, dazed and confused, then turned and re-entered the house. Neighbor Mike Suorsa dashed across the street without shoes to bring her out of the building and over to his own home while his wife Christen and Stacey Balbona both made repeated calls to Station 57 and 911 dispatchers.
Firefighters from Frazier Park arrived on scene in a tanker truck, but Kern County’s budget cutbacks have reduced them to a two-person crew. Safety protocol requires that a minimum of four firefighters be on scene before a team can enter a burning building. The first responders were unable to enter the house until additional personnel arrived.
The two pumped water on the blaze, but the flames jumped into the rafters and vaporized the insulation. Fire burned through the roof and jumped into the air. Another Kern County Fire Department tanker arrived from Lebec, then one from Mettler, a fourth from Kern County and one from L.A. County’s Gorman station. Firefighters pumped down the water supply of three tankers within a few minutes, trying to extinguish the blaze. They asked residents where to find a fire hydrant, Gary Balbona said. Finally, they discovered one down on Dakota Trail. The U.S. Forest Service also arrived to help. They moved furniture out of the home. About 30 firefighters eventually responded, but the home suffered about $400,000 in damage, KCFD estimated.
“It is an eye-opener,” Stacey and Gary Balbona said. “We moved here in 2006. No one ever pointed out there was no fire hydrant near us.” They were told that if there had been snow on the steep, rutted dirt trail the engines would not have been able to enter the area. “Why does the county give building permits without demanding that the fire hydrant and fire access be adequate?” the couple asked.
Greg Keenberg, manager of the Frazier Park Public Utilities District (FPPUD), said the Dakota hydrant was within the county’s specifications of about 500 feet. But the water pressure in the Idaho Trail area is low because it is so close to the Jim Young water tank that supplies the area. “All pressure in this system is from gravity,” Keenberg said, “and these homes are really high on the hill.” Though Mike Suorsa said his family paid $9,000 to extend a six-inch distribution pipe to the east end of Idaho Trail when they built their home about five years ago, Keenberg reported Monday that the feeder line from the tank itself is only four inches. He hopes to change that to eight-inch piping in Phase Three of the FPPUD system upgrades.
On Tuesday he showed Gary Balbona “a beautiful map with all the hydrants marked with GPS,” created by KCFD, Stacey Balbona said in an interview.
Neighbors praised the firefighters: “They used everything they had available, including pumping foam onto the flames to stop the fire in the insulation.”
Utility companies secured electrical lines and gas pipes. The neighborhood did not lose electricity. KCFD information officer Captain Brandon Smith said rags saturated with Penofin, a combustible oil finish for wood, may have been left exposed to air and spontaneously ignited (it is recommended that they be kept in a metal can). He added that their engine pumps increase the pressure from the hydrants, but “There are certain points where the water supply is too low and the pump will cavitate… we have to be cautious not to cause the lines to rupture.” He said this is rare.
Stacey Balbona said the neighborhood leapt into action to help Farnum, but “she’s grief-stricken, she feels she’s lost everything—‘I’m homeless and car-less,’” Balbona quoted Farnum, a senior citizen, as saying.
Smoke damage to furniture and clothes was severe. Farnum is staying with her sister in Frazier Park. Neighbor Judy Cadman said The Shelter On The Hill Thrift Store will invite Farnum to choose anything she needs, at no cost.
This is part of the October 23, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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