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Firefighters, too, seek to reduce water use due to drought

In fighting wildland or structural fires, it's hard to overstate the value of water to firefighters. The drought, of course, is making water more precious than ever, but firefighters say they fight fires in 2014 as they were trained to: using only as much water as necessary.

Firefighters have felt the drought's effect when they're not fighting fires. Training exercises are now using less water, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Woodside and Menlo Park fire protection districts. Water use is also down at fire stations.

Woodside district

At Station 8 at 135 Portola Road in Portola Valley, the Woodside fire district recently replaced its grass front lawn with mostly native drought-tolerant and fire-resistant plants. The project budget ranged from $20,000 to $35,000, Battalion Chief Jerry Nave told the Almanac.

Had they considered artificial grass? "The reason we did not pursue artificial turf was because of the discussion/disagreement that transpired with the turf proposition at Woodside Priory (in Portola Valley)," Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso said in an email. "I/we felt it was not worth even looking at that option. Staff all agreed that we needed to reduce our water consumption, and at the same time keep the 'look' of the neighborhood we share."

Chief Ghiorso was referring to a contentious 2013 plan to install artificial grass at the soccer field of the Priory, a private Catholic boarding school for grades 6-12. The Planning Commission OK'd the idea by a 3-2 vote, but it was overturned by the Town Council, also on a 3-2 vote. With strong environmental arguments to be made for and against artificial grass, and in a town known for its green ethic, passions were high.

Drought-tolerant fire-resistant landscaping will also replace the lawn at district's Woodside headquarters at 3195 Woodside Road, where irrigation has ended, Mr. Nave said.

The Woodside district, which serves Portola Valley, Woodside and neighboring unincorporated communities, has cut way back on training exercises that use water, Mr. Nave said. If training does involve water, it's done with recycled water or in an area that needs a good soaking. Water suppliers, including the California Water Service Company, have told the district not to open fire hydrants for training, he said.

The headquarters has long had a fire-safe garden planted with drought-tolerant and fire-resistant native plants suitable for home landscaping. It's there to show residents what's possible, Mr. Nave said. The garden was replanted recently, and a smaller fire-safe garden will be going in at the Portola Valley station, he said.

Menlo Park district

In the Menlo Park fire district, the lawns at five fire stations are green but plastic. Replacing the grass with drought-tolerant plants was considered, but visits by children who like to play on the grass, sometimes with pets, and the need to lay out equipment for cleaning led to the decision to use plastic, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman and Battalion Chief Frank Fraone said.

Artificial lawns "make the stations look nice," Mr. Fraone said. The district serves Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and the nearby unincorporated communities. "We have lots of kids at the stations all the time," he added. "We're very pleased with the (new lawns)."

At the main station on Middlefield Road, the plastic grass will be bordered by drought-tolerant plants and crushed rock, Mr. Fraone said. Some previous vegetation, including hydrangeas, has been pulled out and irrigation is limited to survival needs.

As in the Woodside district, Menlo Park has reduced training that relies on water. Exercises that do use water use less of it, Mr. Fraone said. Many exercises are held using a tank system that captures the runoff and recycles it.

In a July report to the board, Chief Schapelhouman recapped water conservation measures. Sightings of spanking clean fire engines and staff vehicles will be fewer. No more washing of personal vehicles or concrete at fire stations, and no more fire hydrant flushing.

Hydrant checks must be done with water conservation in mind. The same is true for personal showers, laundry and dish washing. Water use is monitored by station.

Logging water use

Many steps taken locally are also in effect at Cal Fire stations around the state, said Scott McLean, a battalion chief for the Northern California branch of Cal Fire. Real grass is out, drought-tolerant vegetation is in, equipment cleaning is less frequent, and personal water use at stations is down.

At one Cal Fire station, firefighters reduced the flow from a storage tank to the point at which bacteria that prefer still water found conditions in the tank favorable, Mr. McLean said.

During training, firefighting aircraft drawing water from a pond return it to the pond when dumping it.

During wildland firefighting, all water use is monitored and logged, regardless of its source, Mr. McLean said. Nozzle sizes are smaller. In mopping up operations, the emphasis is on digging up soil and adding "a little water" as necessary, he said.

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