San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. (AP File Photo)

San Francisco residents deserve equal fire protection after a major earthquake hits

We know there will be fires after the Big One — the major earthquake experts predict will hit the Bay Area sometime in the next 30 years. But decisions made by city leaders have left large parts of San Francisco poorly protected against the fires that could break out once shaking stops.

After a post-earthquake fire destroyed large portions of The City in 1906, officials built a network of reinforced pipes dedicated to providing high-pressure, high-volume, water to firefighters. The system, constructed in 1913, uses non-potable water to protect the northeastern and central sections of The City – including Telegraph Hill, Pacific Heights, the Financial District, and South of Market – the areas where people lived and worked at that time.

In the century since then, The City has expanded to the West and the South. But the firefighting water system has not. As a result, people living in the Sunset, the Richmond, and the southern neighborhoods – Bayview Heights, Crocker Amazon, Excelsior, Ingleside, Little Hollywood, Merced Manor, Mission Terrace, Outer Mission, Parkside, Portola, Sea Cliff, Stonestown, and Sunnyside – could face broken water mains and huge conflagrations after the next big earthquake.

The consequences of doing nothing are terrifying. The unprotected neighborhoods are primarily wood frame homes, physically attached or packed tightly together.

Many neighborhood activists argue that The City should build a system exactly like the one from 1913 in the western and southern neighborhoods. This would offer the most comprehensive protection against post-earthquake fires. In a worst-case scenario, this system could take unlimited amounts of water from the ocean and the Bay, not to mention Lake Merced, to fight multiple conflagrations.

But it would be expensive. A 2014 report prepared for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (which manages the system) estimated that it would cost at least $685 million to replicate the 1913 system in the unprotected areas. It’s likely closer to a billion dollars today.

The SF PUC, however, doesn’t want to build and maintain two separate pipelines – one for drinking water, the other for firefighting. So, they propose upgrading drinking water pipelines and using them for firefighting in the event of an earthquake. The Sunset Reservoir would provide the only source of water for these pipes. Water from the ocean, Bay, or Lake Merced cannot be added to this system, because the non-potable water in those bodies would contaminate the pipes we need to carry our drinking water.

Many neighborhood activists worry that using potable water to fight fires could cause a shortage of drinking water after an earthquake. They wonder what happens if the Sunset Reservoir is emptied fighting multiple conflagrations? Water to replenish the reservoir will have to come from Hetch Hetchy, and that will take time — time that firefighters facing disaster may not have.

But the critics are perhaps most concerned that the PUC seems to be taking a piecemeal approach to developing a system to protect the western and southern neighborhoods. San Francisco has passed three bonds (in 1986, 2010, and 2014) that included money to expand components of an emergency fire fighting water system. Much of that money has gone toward adding cisterns throughout The City to hold water for firefighting. But the cisterns are not automatically refilled.

There doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive, citywide plan to protect all residential neighborhoods. For example, the PUC’s current proposals do not include a clear way to get water from Lake Merced to the firefighters who might need it in a worst-case scenario. By contrast, a pipe network like the 1913 water system, could easily accept water from Lake Merced, if it was built.

The issue is whether or not the entire city deserves to have the same level of protection against fires after an earthquake, or whether it’s okay to provide large sections with less protection.

In November, San Francisco voters will be asked to vote on a bond that will likely include money to upgrade some drinking water pipes for use in firefighting. The details – specific projects and costs – are still being worked out. But it seems likely the bond will continue The City’s piecemeal approach to fighting post-earthquake fires in the western and southern neighborhoods – a few cisterns here, some new pipes there.

Now, before the bond details are finalized, is the time for city officials to sit down with neighborhood activists – in meetings open to the public, not behind closed doors – to put together the kind of comprehensive, integrated, citywide plan that seems to be missing. Before we authorize more money for smaller projects in a bond, we should ensure we know how those projects fit into the overall plan to protect residential neighborhoods. We need to be sure we’re not just funding smaller projects because they’re more affordable, while ignoring larger, more expensive projects that could offer firefighters the unlimited water they will need.

When The City wanted to rebuild the Embarcadero seawall, at an estimated cost of $5 billion, officials at the Port of San Francisco developed their entire repair plan first, identified multiple funding sources, and then went to the voters to secure a special bond dedicated to the seawall. The voters overwhelmingly approved that bond last November.

Providing a robust emergency firefighting water system that covers the entire city is also something that has to be done. The PUC should follow the process the Port used on the seawall to build the needed infrastructure.

Those of us who live in the western and southern neighborhoods deserve to feel as confident that we are as protected after the Big One hits as residents in the northeastern and central parts of The City.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest columnist.

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