Report: Large parts of SF ‘not adequately protected’ from fires after major earthquake

Civil grand jury urges expansion of emergency firefighting water system

San Francisco’s high-pressure fire-fighting water system protects some of the densest neighborhoods but large parts of The City are not covered by it, leaving residents “inadequately protected” from blazes after a major earthquake.

A recent civil grand jury report, “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System,” raised the alarm about the lack of coverage for neighborhoods like the Sunset, Richmond and Bayview.

Stephen Garber, who served on the civil grand jury, said that “to have large areas of The City not adequately protected is simply wrong.”

“This is not a new issue. The City has known about it for years. We are not criticizing anybody in the past, but the question is how quickly can we act and what can we do now,” Garber said during Thursday’s Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing on the report.

The Auxiliary Water Supply System, also known as the Emergency Firefighting Water System, dates back to 1913 and was installed in response to the fire following the Great Earthquake of 1906. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission operates the independent system, which delivers water at high pressures, comprising 135 miles of pipeline and 150 cisterns.

The City’s high-pressure emergency water supply system “does not cover large parts of Supervisorial Districts 1, 4, 7 and 11, roughly one-third of the City’s developed area,” the report said. “As a result, these districts are not adequately protected from fires after a major earthquake.”

The SFPUC and San Francisco Fire Department are developing plans for a potable Emergency Firefighting Water System for the Western neighborhoods that is likely to include over 14 miles of new pipelines and two pump stations. Funding is to come from a planned March 2020 bond and a bond in 2027 to cover phase 2. The report estimates phase one of the project is $195 million and phase 2 $120 million.

“But at the City’s current pace it will take approximately 35 years or more to build out a HP AWSS pipeline system that serves all neighborhoods, including the southern portions of the City,” the report said. “The City does not have a plan with a firm timeline for completion of this work or firm plans to fund all the work that needs to be done.”

To expand the system or build separate equivalent systems to serve all areas equally is estimated to cost about $500 million, not including phase 1 of the planned westside project, according to the report.

“This roughly $500 million estimate is a huge amount of money, but … the risk of incurring the costs from a major, inadequately-fought fire is far greater,” the report said.

Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who represents the Richmond, praised the Westside potable water project during the hearing and said it has been her top priority since resuming office three years ago.

She said that in the Richmond there are thousands of wood-framed homes built close together that would be vulnerable to fires following an earthquake.

“Between the Richmond and the Sunset, we are talking about 42,000 structures that are not currently covered by a high pressure emergency water system,” Fewer said. “It is so critical that all neighborhoods of San Francisco are protected in the case of an emergency and the work of the civil grand jury is helping to ensure that as a city this is a priority.”

In response to the report, Mayor London Breed and department heads like SFPUC director Harlan Kelly jointly wrote in a letter that “San Francisco continues to improve our City’s resiliency each day through our ongoing investments in public infrastructure and equipment.”

The letter notes that voters will be asked to approve in March 2020 a $628.5 million bond for public safety needs, which includes $153.5 million for the West Side Emergency Firefighting Water System.

The report recommended City Hall issue a plan by December 31, 2020 “that should include a detailed proposal, including financing sources, for the installation within 15 years of a high-pressure, multi-sourced, seismically safe emergency water system for those parts of the City that don’t currently have one, i.e., by no later than June 30, 2034.” And a detailed plan “to ensure the City is well prepared to fight fires in all parts of San Francisco in the event of a 1906-magnitude (7.8) earthquake.”

But the mayor and city departments said that would require more analysis and discussions of such a major undertaking need to take place as part of the larger capital planning process in 2021, when the next update to the 10-year capital plan is scheduled.

”Ensuring that San Francisco has the infrastructure and resources to be well prepared to fight fires in all parts of San Francisco is something that will be a focus of the next 10-Year Capital Plan,” the letter said.

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