August 30, 2023 – Yesterday evening, multiple news organizations reported wildfires burning near Colony Ridge in Liberty County.
Yet large parts of Colony Ridge, the fastest growing part of the county, have few fire hydrants. Some areas have none at all. And in the areas that have them, fire hydrant spacing is 2-5X greater than codes specify, while pressure is reportedly half of what codes require. And according to some sources interviewed for this article, many hydrants allegedly don’t work.
All this increases residents’ fire risk and insurance rates – if they can even get fire insurance. Some say they can’t.
Former Plum Grove Mayor, LeeAnn Penton-Walker says she and Colony Ridge residents have been trying to alert the county judge, commissioners, engineer and fire marshal to the dangers since 2015.
Fire Safety Top of Mind as Drought Deepens
Meanwhile, fire safety is at the top of everyone’s mind as the current drought deepens amid relentless heat. A burn ban remains in effect across the region. The National Weather Service has posted red-flag warnings for today. A combination of very dry vegetation, low humidity and gusty winds could easily spark fires.
Jeff Lindner, Harris County’s meteorologist, says that numerous fires started around the region yesterday and we have similar conditions today. “Fires especially in pine canopies continue to exhibit extensive growth rates and fast forward motion with long lasting crown runs. Increasingly larger fires are requiring large amounts of resources for an extended period of time,” says Lindner.
Recent Pictures Show Vast Areas with Apparently No Hydrants
On August 12, as I flew over Colony Ridge in Liberty County, the scarcity of fire hydrants struck me. I did not see any. However, the Liberty County fire marshal told me that the developer was trying to bring the development up to code. I knew the development had at least a handful of hydrants from a story I did three years ago. But Colony Ridge has virtually doubled in size since then.
Below are four pictures from areas recently built out. Many lots in these areas have already been sold and occupied. So you should see fire hydrants. But I couldn’t, even when magnifying high-res versions of the images on a large screen.
These photos are representative of thousands of shots I have taken from helicopters over Colony Ridge.
Areas With Fire Hydrants Do Not Meet Code Requirement
I asked the county fire marshal for a list of hydrant locations, but he could not supply me with one. So I spent a full day criss-crossing the area and burning a tank of gasoline looking for them. I located 59. See the satellite images below.
In the first, note how hydrants are clustered in rows and columns. Also note how large parts of the development have none. That verifies what I saw from the air.
In the satellite image above, for instance, note the:
- Broad empty swath across the bottom
- Another broad swath on the east running north to south
- An empty area in the middle
- Another empty area at the top.
The next satellite image shows eight fire hydrants in the most populated portion of the northern part of Colony Ridge.
Altogether, Colony Ridge covers more than 30 square miles. It has almost doubled in size in the last two years. If my count is accurate, it now has only about two fire hydrants per square mile.
What Fire Codes Require
Even though the Liberty County Fire Marshal’s web page does not list a fire code, Bill Hergemueller, the fire marshal, said that the county follows 2018 IFC (International Fire Code) regulations. That code specifies maximum spacing of 500 feet, but Hergemueller said the county allows 600 feet. However…
Fire hydrants on north-south streets have an average spacing of 1300 feet.
So considering both directions, the average spacing exceeds code requirements by 2-5X.
But again, most streets have absolutely no fire hydrants. That makes the distances to fire hydrants far greater! A Houston fire captain told me that his trucks carried at most 500 feet of fire hose.
To service areas such as Colony Ridge, volunteer fire departments use tanker trucks. They fill their tanks at a hydrant and then shuttle to the fire until it is extinguished.
In fairness, Hergemueller also pointed out that parts of the development are still expanding and that the IFC regs were adopted after Colony Ridge started developing in 2013.
Codes Largely Agree
Most national standards call for one fire hydrant every 200-500 feet depending on the type of development.
The 2018 IFC regulations used by Liberty County specify 200- to 500-foot spacing between fire hydrants, with a few exceptions, i.e., in areas where buildings have sprinkler systems.
National Fire Protection Association standards specify that for detached one- and two-family dwellings “fire hydrants shall be within five hundred (500′) feet… The maximum distance between fire hydrants shall not exceed 800 ft.”
Texas’ Local Government Code 233.061-C gives Liberty County the right to enforce its fire code retroactively. In other words, the county could force the developer to upgrade his infrastructure to meet current code requirements.
In addition to violating fire-hydrant spacing requirements, Colony Ridge has another problem: existing water mains may not have enough pressure to douse fires before they get out of control.
Alternatives to Hydrants Also Missing
A “fire-code standards” expert I talked to in another county said that in rural areas, the alternatives to hydrants include on-site infrastructure such as water storage tanks and ponds that firefighters could use as sources of water. However, Colony Ridge does not appear to have those. In fact, the developer has drained many of the ponds to build homes over them.
So volunteers fill a tanker truck at one of the working hydrants, drive to the fire, pump their water, and refill as necessary until a blaze is extinguished. The standards expert told me that is a common practice in rural areas.
But Colony Ridge is rapidly becoming “un-rural.” In fact, Colony Ridge is likely larger than the three largest cities in Liberty County put together, though it is difficult to say for sure because of the large number of undocumented aliens.
Colony Ridge now occupies an area that is one-third of the area inside Houston’s 610 loop. Can you imagine an area that size with only 59 fire hydrants? To put that number in perspective, I live in the City of Houston and have 9 hydrants – on my block!
Problems Retrofitting Older Areas with Hydrants
An engineer consulted for this article said that once streets are in, it’s difficult retrofitting neighborhoods with hydrants and larger water mains. Not impossible, but difficult. It requires tunneling under streets and driveways, and that rapidly becomes expensive. That’s why most developers put utilities in before they pave.
Who Will Pay for Water?
During my hydrant inventory, I noticed that most Colony Ridge fire hydrants contained this sign. It says, “Fire hydrant use requires registered meter with Quadvest. For emergencies, usage must be reported to Quadvest. Unlawful use prohibited and punishable by law.” Then it lists Quadvest’s address and phone number.
It appears that someone will be charged for the water coming out of this hydrant. However, it’s not clear whether that will be fire victims, volunteer fire fighters, the municipal utility district or water-rate payers. At press time, sources had not returned phone calls to clarify who would pay.
Calls for Service Up as Colony Ridge Expands in Drought
By August 21, according to a Facebook Post, the Plum Grove VFD had already received 855 calls for service compared to 1,111 in all of last year. So, three per day last year. And so far, 3.7 per day this year. That’s a lot of demand on volunteers! One wonders how it affects their regular jobs.
Growth has no doubt played a role in the increase. So has the drought and an increase in wildfires.
Without hydrant spacing that meets fire codes, unsuspecting residents face extra risk and higher insurance costs – if they can even get insurance.
If any responsible parties would like to respond to this post, I will make space available.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/28/2023
2189 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.