A review of the Niagara-on-the-Lake fire department's access to water in rural areas found crucial gaps in the service's ability to fight rural fires and that led the town to approve buying two new $425,000 tanker trucks.
Fire chief Nick Ruller told councillors in committee last week that the review in March identified serious problems as there are few hydrants in rural areas.
The department has budgeted $628,500 to spend on new vehicles between 2018 and 2027, and Ruller proposed using that money for the tanker trucks. Another $300,000 will be moved from a previous plan to upgrade an existing vehicle.
That way there will be no extra cost to taxpayers, he noted. Council approved the plan Monday night.
The department faces unique challenges due to NOTL's large rural areas, its location on the greenbelt and the fact it is isolated to the north and east by bodies of water.
Ruller pointed out several areas that have a dearth of water sources. Particularly vulnerable are the corridors of Concessions 1 and 2, the area from Concession 7 to Four Mile Creek Road and almost the entire area northwest of Niagara Stone Road and Concession 7. That includes the areas of Carlton, Lakeshore, McNab and Stewart.
And it was near Carlton that a massive fire erupted last February at 1238 Townline Rd. The department called in mutual aid from the Thorold fire department to help with water supply.
The NOTL fire department uses a system of mutual aid from surrounding municipalities to help with rural firefighting operations. But the surrounding geography presents a challenge.
“With the lake on the north of us, the U.S. to the east of us and two urban municipalities on the south and west that don’t have tankers available to us, we’re in kind of a unique situation,” Ruller said.
Coun. Norm Arsenault asked about adding hydrants so trucks have access to a reliable water source but Ruller said the "expansive" rural area makes it difficult to add such infrastructure.
Coun. Clare Cameron noted much of NOTL is on the greenbelt and said she would never support infrastructure development in those areas.
“If we want to see lots of subdivisions on top of our specialty crop land, having municipal water and us as the public service paying for it is a great way to invite loads of development applications,” Cameron said.
According to Ruller, tanker trucks are more reliable than alternatives, such as building cisterns throughout the town to draw water from. Plus tankers are mobile.
The fire department currently has two tanker trucks each capable of holding 11,500 litres of water. The trucks are always full and ready to be dispatched to a fire. They dump their water into large holding containers which the pumper trucks then pull from.
The tanker trucks then go to the nearest fill site to get more water, Ruller told councillors.
It is a time costly but efficient system but it becomes exacerbated the farther a fire is from a fill zone.
Ruller pointed out a situation where, due to limited access to laneways and water supplies, the department would have to set up a series of portable ponds and relay water from pond to pond, almost 2,000 feet to the site of the fire.
“What we’re essentially doing is creating our own water main system,” he said.
This combination of elements makes tanker trucks essential for rural firefighting in NOTL.
Another concern for the department is the changing nature of buildings in rural areas.
“The increased use of synthetics and engineered building products has resulted in a dramatic change in heat release rates of fuels and in turn we require more water to extinguish” them, Ruller said.
Open-concept homes also require more water in a fire, the chief said.
“If you look back 50 or 60 years ago, more homes were compartmentalized and that helps limit fire spread. Now, most places are open concept,” Ruller told The Lake Report.
In a closed room the smoke that a fire produces has a suffocating effect and can help put the fire out, he said. In open-concept homes, the flow of oxygen is readily available, so fires grow and spread faster.
“To simplify firefighting, it’s gallons per minute against us. That’s what we’re trying to match and overcome,” Ruller said.
The new tankers won't just mean increased fire security for residents, he said.
“Hopefully, our residents in the rural areas will be able to benefit from some insurance premium reductions,” Ruller said.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report