Low pressure hinders firefighters at west side blaze

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city water department responded to the scene of a suspected arson early Wednesday when low water pressure hindered firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the blaze, city officials said.

Crews were called around 1:30 a.m. to the fire engulfing two buildings near Lawton and Richton, Detroit Fire Department Arson Chief Charles Simms said.

“The fire did extend from one vacant building to the other. One was a four-family flat and then the other was an apartment building,” he said. “We’re treating it like an arson because firefighters reported multiple ignition points.”

About an hour into the firefighting efforts, officials realized the pressure was too low to extinguish the flames, Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins said.

“We ended up having water pressure issues so we called the water board to come out and open up a water gate in the ground to increase the volume of water to allow us to extinguish the fire,” Jenkins said. “This is an old street and it’s an old main. The main is only about six inches and we had an aerial platform and two engines hooked up. They were just sucking more water than the main could supply.”

Fire officials called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department at 2:23 a.m., and responding crews were able to redirect more water to the scene by 2:45 a.m., maintenance manager Kieyona Jackson said.

“We have adequate pressure for the block, sufficient enough for one hydrant to be available for the fire,” she said. “But once the fire got too big and they needed to put more apparatuses on it, they needed more water.”

Jackson said the issue stems from old infrastructure beneath the city’s streets.

“It depends on the design of the grid of the water main, where it ties into other water mains,” she said. “This was a three block stretch of water main before it connected to another source of water, so the source was three blocks away.”

The city agreed last month to lease its water system to the Great Lakes Water Authority in exchange for $50 million a year, which will go toward updating the aging pipelines, Jackson said.

“That money will help us to start the process of shoring up our infrastructure,” she said.

The fire initially sparked inside a four-unit flat before spreading to a large apartment building next door, Jenkins said. Both buildings were unoccupied.

“(The apartment building) has been totaled and it’s going to be demoed as soon as possible,” he said. “The flat is pretty much rumble now. It pretty much burned to the ground.”

Two firefighters injured while fighting the blaze have been released from the hospital after treatment for smoke inhalation, Jenkins said.

“We had two firefighters that were overcome by smoke but they’re doing OK,” he said. “The firefighters are doing fine and there were no civilians hurt.”

Arson investigators are canvassing the area after deeming the fire to be suspicious in origin, Simms said.

“We will have the investigators canvassing this morning looking for clues,” he said.

Water department officials also remain in the area Wednesday.

“We’re going through the neighborhood checking to make sure that all the gates are fine and that the people’s pressure is fine. It’s a customer service check, is what I call it,” Jackson said. “We’re making sure nothing floated up into their line and caused an obstruction or anything. Everything’s been fine so far.”

hfournier@detroitnews.com

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