Muir Oaks Residents Sound Alarm about Fire Hydrant Woes After Blaze Threatens Homes
"We dodged a bullet..." city official says about Oct. 2 fire, antiquated pipe system; police chief delivers good staffing news; council moves ahead on city clerk ballot measure; TB cases at casino
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By Tom Lochner
A group of residents of a subdivision in the hills south of Highway 4 is sounding the alarm on the fire danger they feel exposed to as a result of faulty water supply infrastructure.
Like, if there's a fire, will there be enough water to fight it?
A vegetation fire on Oct. 2 at Muir Oaks came very close to damaging homes, residents told the Martinez City Council on Oct. 18. The neighborhood, which has 135 homes according to one resident, is situated along John Muir Road, which climbs uphill northward from the intersection with Alhambra Avenue/Pleasant Hill Road East/Vine Hill Way. Other streets in the development include Upton, Venner, Hampton, Lester, Milden and Northridge roads.
"When the fire trucks arrived, they didn't know that we don't have adequate water pressure in our fire hydrants," Muir Oaks resident Christine Friel said. "They had to send water trucks up."
An Incident Notification put out by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) shows a large deployment of resources in response to the Oct. 2 fire: 12 engines, two water tenders, one handcrew, three battalion chiefs, one fire investigator, one district chief.
ConFire crews from Martinez, Concord, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and Bay Point were assisted by the Rodeo-Hercules and Crockett-Carquinez fire departments. Also assisting were Martinez police, American Medical Response and PG&E. Total fire personnel at the scene: 55.
"The two water tenders on scene played a significant role in providing water to the pumping engines due to loss of water pressure in the hydrants on Venner Road," the ConFire report reads in part. The hydrants at Muir Oaks are fed by city water lines.
Residents described a somewhat chaotic scene during the fire. Besides the lack of water pressure, the accounts they gave, based on their own observations or those of neighbors, included that some residents stood in their yards with hoses and fire extinguishers — one even pumped water out of his swimming pool; and that the local map of fire hydrants is so outdated, it includes one that no longer exists.
The cause of the Oct. 2 fire was still undetermined at the time the Incident Notification was filed, according to its author, Acting Battalion Chief Dennis Buchholz. One firefighter was taken to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek for heat-related injuries. Damage was limited to the exterior of one home, a deck and awning, pool equipment and fencing, Buchholz added. The report is at https://www.cccfpd.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Significant-Incident-Report.pdf.
Muir Oaks resident Valerie Hromatka said it was "scary" to watch the fire advance up the hillside from her patio, knowing about the hydrants' pressure problem. She said it was a matter of good fortune — it wasn't windy that day — that the fire didn't result in far greater damage.
"Usually, the winds are whipping up the Carquinez Strait up that hill," Hromatka said.
Muir Oaks resident Diane D'Aoust added: "It was not a windy day, and yet four houses came within feet of being burned on Venner Road." The fire started near Pleasant Hill Road, almost directly below a residence on Venner, D'Aoust said, reading from a neighbor's statement.
Several residents complained of a lack of coordination between the city and ConFire.
"What we'd like to know is, where's the action plan, to coordinate safety," Friel said. Hromatka said, "Why doesn't the left hand know what the right hand is doing?"
Other complaints included that Muir Oaks residents feel let down in view of the high property taxes they pay; that the water supply problems exist even though their water bills include a pumping fee; and that the problems could affect their homeowners insurance.
City officials have been aware of the water pressure and other water delivery issues, and city Engineer Joe Enke, acknowledging that "we dodged a bullet with the fire," described in some detail what the city has done and will soon do about it. One "critical" fire hydrant close to the fire was found not to work when it was hooked onto, he said. That hydrant, one of two on Venner, has since been fixed, he said.
A large portion of Muir Oaks, which dates to the 1950s, has undersized pipes, Enke said, speaking at the council meeting. The city is in the process of a design project, he added.
"We anticipate going out to bid in January, with the council award (of a contract) in March, and construction following later in the spring," Enke said. The project will address most of Muir Oaks if not all of it, he said.
Probably more than half of the hydrants within Muir Oaks have adequate flow, Enke said — specifically, the hydrants from John Muir Road up to Lester Road; the ones on Lester; and one at the water tank on Kendall Court. Other hydrants, on Northridge, Milden, Venner and Upton roads and upper John Muir Road, do not have adequate flow, he said.
In a subsequent email, Enke provided additional details: the higher reaches of Muir Oaks are supplied by a pump station and a hydropneumatic tank (which holds water and air under pressure) on Kendall Court. There are three pumps: two 250 gpm (gallons per minute) service pumps and one 1,300 gpm fire pump.
"Most of the pipe system is comprised of 4- and 6-inch pipelines constructed in the early 1950s," Enke wrote. "This aged system does not provide reliable fire flow to the service area."
The balance of Muir Oaks is served by a separate pressure zone, Enke added.
The city is not acting fast enough to solve the water supply problem, several residents said. Ashley Klim Fitzpatrick said she wants officials to declare an "emergency situation," because "it's still fire season, and we are very much in danger in this neighborhood."
"While there is movement (on the part of the city), it's slow; it's glacial, really," she said, adding that the situation constitutes "a huge safety and property value risk to the city of Martinez."
Enke offered to meet with homeowners for what he termed "more in-depth explanations."
Mayor Brianne Zorn said the matter will be put on a future City Council agenda for discussion.
City Manager Michael Chandler said the last time there was a brush fire up in Muir Oaks, to his knowledge, was about 11 years ago. He added that his staff informed him there was a more recent house fire on John Muir Road, unrelated to brushfire, and that ConFire reported no water service issues related to fighting that fire.
The following items were produced by Craig Lazzeretti
Police Department staffing
Police Chief Andrew White had some good news to share about his department’s staffing levels at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, saying he has hired 11 sworn officers since January and 16 new department employees total, accounting for 30% of the department’s workforce.
The Police Department’s staffing situation has been described as a crisis over the past year, as it’s struggled to hire officers faster than they leave the department or go out on leave. The problem was further compounded in August, when four officers were placed on leave following the fatal officer-involved shooting at Velvet Cannabis.
White said he had six officers on patrol Wednesday night, which was among the highest staffing ratios since he took over as chief at the beginning of the year.
“We’re making progress, but there are challenges along the way,” he told the council.
As of Wednesday’s meeting, the number of sworn officer vacancies in the department stood at six, and the department’s overall vacancy rate is still the highest of any city department.
White’s update followed a generally positive report on City Hall staffing overall, with the city steadily filling openings and encountering more hiring situations with multiple qualified candidates. The city is hoping to fill at least 10 additional positions by the end of the year and finish 2023 with a 12% overall vacancy rate (constituting 18 positions). Among the top positions it is currently seeking to fill are a chief building officials, finance director and code enforcement inspector.
The City Council identified City Hall hiring and retention as its No. 1 goal for the year, given the significant turnover and hiring struggles in recent years.
In other news involving White, Gov. Gavin Newsom reappointed him to the State 9-1-1 Advisory Board, where he has served since 2021, last week. The press release announcing the reappointment can be found here: https://www.gov.ca.gov/2023/11/02/governor-newsom-announces-appointments-11-2-23/
City clerk ballot measure
The City Council voted to proceed with crafting a ballot measure for March that would ask voters to convert the city clerk position from an elected to appointed role. Martinez is one of only three cities (along with Pittsburg and Antioch) in the county that directly elects its city clerk, who performs a primarily ceremonial role while the actual duties of the position, such as compiling and producing public records, elections-related documents and meeting agendas and minutes, are performed by a full-time “assistant” clerk.
The discussion preceding the vote, however, revealed details of the potential switch that still need to be ironed out. A subject of some concern — and confusion — during the discussion was whether the current elected position would be absorbed into current City Hall staffing or lead to the hiring of an additional employee, and the resulting budget implications. City Manager Chandler clarified that there currently is no plan to increase staffing in the City Clerk’s Office if voters approve the change, but he did acknowledge the long-term need for more resources to fulfill the growing responsibilities of the office, something that would be evaluated in terms of the city’s overall fiscal condition and staffing needs. “That’s worthy of discussion because the office has been underrepresented staffing-wise really throughout its history,” he said.
Mayor Zorn asked that the ballot measure make clear that, under this change, the clerk would be hired by and serve under the city manager, to allay any concerns that she or the council would handpick the person.
Council members Mark Ross and Debbie McKillop were appointed to a council subcommittee to help facilitate the crafting of a ballot measure and resolve any lingering questions before the matter comes back to the council on Nov. 15 for formal adoption of a ballot measure resolution.
A large chunk of Wednesday’s meeting consisted of a sometimes-pointed discussion with the county’s Coordinated Outreach Referral and Engagement (CORE) program about the services it is providing to the unhoused in Martinez. While the discussion noted progress the program has made over the past year in connecting the unhoused with services, it also addressed ongoing resource limitations, including a lack of shelter space and housing options, as well as concerns about the scope and effectiveness of some of its services, among other challenges. I hope to provide a detailed report on the discussion in an upcoming post. For those interested, the discussion can be found in the following video link starting around the 44-minute mark of the meeting: https://martinez.granicus.com/player/clip/2116?view_id=9&redirect=true&h=9ed3fe25031c7916dbbb9732f09d6564
In his report to the council later in the meeting, Chandler said the city should be able to move ahead swiftly in abating two homeless encampments, one at the waterfront and the other at the Berrellesa Street bridge. Chandler said the anticipated costs of the abatements came in “way less than had been anticipated.”
Tuberculosis cases at casino
Contra Costa Health Services (CCH) issued a news release last week recommending “that anyone who has spent time inside California Grand Casino in Pacheco since 2018 consider a tuberculosis (TB) test, after recent genetic testing revealed several related cases among staff and customers over the past five years.”
According to the release:
CCH has so far not identified a current or ongoing source of transmission at the casino. CCH is working closely with casino management to ensure prompt, appropriate testing, health advice and screening for all its staff.
The full release can be read at this link: https://cchealth.org/press-releases/2023/1102-CCH-Recommends-TB-Testing-for-Workers-Visitors-to-Pacheco-Casino.php