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Fire marshal discusses county water flow rules

Sun Advocate community editor

Fire flows in mountain and rural cabin areas has been an ongoing issue for nearly a year and the county recently adopted several guidelines.

But on Tuesday, the Utah Fire Marshal's Office introduced new ideas for Carbon officials to consider incorporating into the county's development code.

"It used to be that people wanted to live in cities," said Brent Halliday from the state office. "Now, because of various reasons, they want to live out in the sticks or at least have a recreational home there."

"The thing that many of them don't realize is that the advantages they have in the city aren't there, such as infrastructure, police protection and of course fire departments to protect their property. Because fire help is often very far away and sometimes because water systems are inadequate, some insurance companies have begun a program of exposure protection," continued the state official. "That usually includes an inspection by their company and then they make suggestions as to what can be done to limit the property loss should there be a fire. Of course those that don't follow that advice can be subjected to cancellation. But even if fire vehicles and personnel are available, if the water supply in the areas is not enough to handle the trucks pumps, that is a problem."

Halliday told the members of the county's planning and zoning board he was somewhat disturbed when he heard about the fire flow requirements recently adopted by Carbon officials.

The recent regulations require a 250 gallon flow per minute (GPM) in mountain cabin areas and 500 GPM in the valleys.

Many of the concerns about the fire flows relate to the area around Scofield, which includes mountain cabins in developments like Aspen Cove, where a cabin burned down not long ago, and no on even noticed until it was almost leveled.

"To be frank, 250 GPM will not give you very much," he told the commission. "If I were Chief Mike Zamantakis (from the Helper Fire Department that is responsible for much of the Scofield area) I wouldn't hook my truck on a line that will only provide 250 GPM. With what his big units can draw he would bust the water line all up."

Halliday even took issue with the 500 GPM in the valley and said he would feel better if it was raised to at least 750 GPM.

Halliday told the commission that the county has many responsibilities toward what it can do in terms of fire protection regulations. According to state law, counties can issue burning permits, create a board of appeals in accordance with the state fire code and establish, modify, and delete fire flow and water supply requirements.

"Water flow is a problem in many rural areas," he said. "But many communities are doing various things to handle the problem. Many have followed the advice of section 104.9 in the International Fire Code called alternative materials and methods."

This part of the code allows counties to make allowances for little or no water. It uses preemptive measures to keep fire danger down (for instance requiring that homes with little protection be built in the middle of five acres or more so if they burn down they burn nothing else) or could be used to require fire protection equipment in new construction that is fitting with the surroundings and existing infrastructure (such as requiring sprinkling systems in residences in areas with poor fire flow.

"These kinds of regulations have been used in Utah and very successfully," Halliday stated. "Park City was the first place in Utah that required sprinkling systems in homes. They have a lot of large homes that aren't occupied much of the year, because the are vacation getaways. They got beat up over passing it pretty badly, but since they did it the sprinkling systems have limited damage in three homes where fires started and the sprinklers put the blazes out. If those sprinklers hadn't been there those houses might have been total losses, because the fires would have been noticed too late."

Halliday also pointed out the Wasatch County has a similar problem to Scofield mountain homes in the Strawberry Reservoir-Soldier Creek area.

"They actually have enough water there, but their engines are 40 minutes away in Heber and by the time they reach an area the home would be burned down," explained Halliday. "So they require sprinklers built in when new homes are built in that area."

The fire officials said that sprinkling systems have gotten a bad rap over the years because people believe that when one head goes off they all go off.

"But they don't all go off at once, only the one activated by the fire sprays water," he said. "The average head only sprays 16 gallons of water per minute and in 96 percent of the fires in homes with sprinklers, the fire is put out after only two heads are activated."

But Halliday pointed out that no matter what is done, it is expectations by those that build homes that need to be brought down to earth. They are not going to get the coverage on fire suppression they would if they built a house in the valley.

"We went up and looked at Aspen Cove," said Halliday. "On the top the flow is about 300 GPM. At the bottom of the development it is 1300 GPM. But that doesn't matter there because the response time of the engines from Helper is still at least 25 minutes. People need to realize that kind of thing."

County Commissioner Mike Milovich, who is on the planning commission, said that fire protection restrictions are spelled out right on the plats of the property when they are developed, so people should know.

Halliday said that in one case, a county had land owners who built homes in such areas sign a release stating that they understood the issues of fire suppression there.

"However, attorneys say that if someone visits a home in the area and there is a fire and they lose property, that isn't every effective because the owner of the home had no authorization to sign their rights away," said the fire official.

Some questions arose as to the responsibility of the county in providing fire services and the proper water to fight a fire.

"If the county determines that they can't provide the same services in one area that they do in another it isn't a problem," stated Halliday. "For instance, a man built a house in Emigration Canyon east of Salt Lake where there is not a proper water system. He sued Salt Lake County and the Emigration Water District trying to force them to put in the proper hydrants and pressures. But he lost. The courts said they didn't need to provide that because it was his decision to build there knowing the full well what the circumstances were."

That brought up an area of concern for the commission concerning liability and the possibility of getting sued for not providing proper fire protection.

"I have never seen a suit in this state on that in my 23 years on the job at the state fire marshals office," he added. "State code gives immunity to fire departments and the county."

After Halliday's presentation, the planning board talked about the situation. The mebers also voiced concern about houses in the mountains burning down and consequently starting the forest or wildland around it on fire, creating problems with not only timber and wildlife habitat loss, but also possible damage to the watersheds in those areas.

The board directed the planning and zoning staff to draw up an ordinance that would require sprinkling systems in mountain residences that could be built in the future.

Board member Richard Tatton said he thought it would be a good idea to bring fire chiefs from the county into the planning and zoning process on new mountain subdivisions at the beginning instead of on the back end.

The board will study all the problems that Halliday brought up more completely in the coming months.

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