Lack of fire hydrants raises risk, costs for unincorporated Chatham residents

Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 3:53 PM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Thousands of people in Chatham County live in neighborhoods with no fire hydrants. It is a problem that has persisted for decades despite rapid growth in some areas.

WTOC Investigates found there is a growing divide between neighborhoods with hydrants and those without them. It is a situation self-inflicted over the years by a series of decisions made by Chatham County Commission.

One night in April, neighbors along Chevis Road watched helplessly from the roadway after an abandoned home went up in flames. The fire quickly engulfed the house and spread to the one next door.

No fire hydrants in that area further complicated the efforts of responding firefighters to get the fire under control. It led to a complex situation, said Chatham Fire Chief James Vickers.

“It was about a 4,000 square foot house, so it was a very large house. It’s very tedious, man-power intensive, equipment intensive and again it delayed things,” Chief Vickers said.

Chatham Fire saved the neighbor’s house. The abandoned home burned to the ground. Investigators have since opened an arson case to determine who intentionally set the fire.

The fire in April and a recent string of fires at abandoned homes in unincorporated Chatham County have underscored the lack of fire hydrants.

A WTOC Investigates analysis of public fire hydrant data provided by Chatham Fire shows thousands of homes and businesses have no fire hydrant protection.

The areas with little or no publicly maintained fire hydrants include portions of Burnside, Wilmington, Talahi, and Whitemarsh islands and several residential neighborhoods on the western side of the county that include subdivisions off Fort Argyle, Buckwalter, Salt Creek and Ogeechee roads.

Living in a neighborhood with no access to fire hydrants not only means a different response from firefighters, but it also means homeowners are likely paying a higher home insurance premium. In some cases, it could mean the difference of thousands of dollars each year, said insurance broker Steven Templeton, of Morris & Templeton Insurance Agents in Savannah.

“If you’re not within a thousand feet of a fire hydrant,” he said “You can go from a protection class 1 in some areas to a protection class 9 in other areas, and that can make your fire protection increase four fold.”

“Really, more than premium. It is property damage. You want that fire hydrant there because you want them to get there as soon as they can to put the fire out to prevent property damage.”

Not every insurance company will raise premiums because of the fire hydrant distance, but a lot of them do, Templeton said.

Chatham Fire does not install the water lines or fire hydrants. But once they are in place, firefighters maintain them through annual inspections to check water pressure.

The department spent the past two years mapping the location of every hydrant in the district to improve response, Chief Vickers said.

“We know the areas very well. We know the areas that do not have the hydrants. Also, what’s in our CAD system. It will actually warn us if it’s a hydrated area or a non-hydrated area,” he said. “We can’t fix the water part - that’s the part we cannot fix.”

Chatham Fire has trained for that scenario using what’s called a water shuttle system, like the one used the night of the Chevis Road fire.

It involves setting up portable pools to hold thousands of gallons of water. Firefighters then run hoses to the pools and pump the water to put out the fire. It’s intended to mimic the water flow of an actual fire hydrant. The big difference is setup can add as much as 35 to 45 minutes to a response time.

“If we go to an area with hydrants, it’s basically unlimited water. So, we may have 10, 15, 20 lines, large diameter lines. In an area that does not have fire hydrants. We have to use smaller lines, less number of lines and be strategic about what we do.”

The fire hydrant situation seems simple to fix, said Chatham County Commissioner Aaron Whitely, who represents District 6, which includes the Chevis Road area.

“I think the bottom line is run some pipes and make sure that we have some strong water sources out there, but there are so many moving pieces that go with that,” Whitely said.

One of those pieces is most of the areas without hydrants don’t have public water lines because in 2015 the Chatham County Commission, then led by Chairman Al Scott, sold county lines to a private company for about $7 million.

The fire hydrant issue is part of a much larger, heated discussion unfolding about fire services in unincorporated Chatham County.

Under Chairman Chester Ellis, the issue is getting a fresh look. One that Commissioner Whitely says will require cooperation from the city of Savannah and other incorporated cities in Chatham County.

“If we’re not willing to work together than ultimately, we are setting a terrible precedent that can lead to the detriment of our community at large,” he said.

No one WTOC interviewed for the report could provide an estimate of how much it would cost to run public water lines and install fire hydrants.

Chief Vickers did say one option being considered on Burnside Island is something called a dry hydrant.

It is basically an engineered PVC pipe in the ground to the nearest water source, such as a tidal creek. Dry hydrants give firefighters quick access to water to fight a fire. It requires a drought study and approval from nearby property owners and whomever owns the water source, Vickers said.

Chatham Fire is working with County Commissioners to install 13 dry hydrants on Burnside island. The cost for each one is estimated at $6,000.

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