San Francisco’s Official Seal bears the image of a phoenix, the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes. It’s an appropriate device as San Francisco burned to the ground six times prior to the earthquake and fire in 1906.
However, while the City was rebuilt and improved, the lessons of those fires were soon forgotten. By 1906, a system of cisterns that had been built in the 1860’s had been allowed to fall into disrepair, the assumption being that new firefighting apparatus made them unnecessary. Warnings of potential conflagration from the Chief Engineer, Dennis Sullivan, were ignored and City officials refused to fund the necessary resources to prepare for the coming disaster.
History has a way of repeating itself.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle report casts doubt on the City’s ability to fight fires after an earthquake. According to the report, the San Francisco Fire Department has only enough resources to fight three major fires at one time.
Following the earthquake and fire in 1906, the City implemented many of Chief Sullivan’s recommendations. The City installed a high-pressure water system that was independent of the municipal water system and could be fed by gravity from tanks on the hills or draft seawater directly from the Bay. However, as the City has grown, it has outstripped the capacity of this system, putting much of the residential area of the City is at risk.
The solution was to expand the system of underground cisterns to almost 200, each holding 75,000 gallons. The problem is that only one rig at a time could hook up to the cisterns and they are not always located near the fire. In the 1980’s a local battalion chief, Frank Blackburn, cobbled together a solution that would eventually become known as the Portable Water Supply System (PWSS), an above ground portable hydrant system that could pump high pressure water across half a mile wherever it was needed.
The PWSS has proved its worth. It is the system that, along with the fireboat Phoenix, is credited with saving the Marina District in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It was also used in the Berkeley Hills fire in 1991 and, most recently, in a rare (for San Francisco) five-alarm fire in Mission Bay that eventually required 7 million gallons of water to extinguish.
So what’s the problem? As you would expect, it’s a question of funding priorities. Although other cities have floated bonds to invest in the system, San Francisco does not consider the system a capital expense and requires that the PWSS be handled within the SFFD budget. A request for $9 million for the system in 2010 was turned down. The PWSS remains at essential the same level it was at in 1989 when it was experimental.
It's not hard to see parallels to 1906. Let's hope that City officials see it as well.