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Fire destroys woman’s house, fire department blames broken hydrants

There’s no law regulating hydrant maintenance
Published: May. 12, 2021 at 7:53 PM CDT
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ADGER, Ala. (WBRC) – Nicole Johnson walks around a pile of twisted tin and charred wood searching for something recognizable, although she knows she won’t find anything.

“All my kids’ stuff is in there,” said Johnson, pointing at what a fire left of her home.

“Stuff from when my daddy died, stuff I had for years. My husband passed away. His stuff was in there, you know all this stuff is gone and I can’t get it. I don’t care about couches and chairs, stuff like that, it’s the stuff that I can’t get back. All my kids’ baby stuff, that’s the stuff that is just killing me.”

Johnson was at work when the fire started. She said her boyfriend was asleep on the couch and woke up to the smell of smoke. He and their dog got out and called for help.

It took the Antioch Volunteer Fire Department about 10 minutes to arrive.

Assistant Chief Jim Smith said his crew quickly got to work, setting up the dump tank and filling it with water from their truck. Once empty, another truck dumps its water into the tank, then goes to the closest hydrant, fills up and returns to the scene, repeating the process known as a water shuttle.

“When they drop that 1,500 gallons of water, we’re pumping roughly 100 gallons a minute. That gives us a roughly 15 minute time frame between needing water,” explained Chief Smith.

“We had knocked the fire down to the point where it was just in the one end of the laundry room, and we knocked everything out of the living room,” said Chief Smith.

“Then, we ran out of water.”

Chief Smith said his crew went to two broken hydrants before finding one that worked, losing time in a situation where seconds can have lasting impacts.

“You’re talking 21-22 minutes. In that amount of time with no water on the fire, it pretty much overwhelmed the house and you can see what the house looked like,” said Chief Smith.

“Everybody that sees these fire hydrants and thinks that they’re safe... or they have some kind of rescue or something and then they don’t, that’s not fair. That’s not fair to nobody,” said Johnson.

There’s no standard when it comes to hydrant maintenance and no state entity making sure they work.

WBRC Fox6 spoke with several fire departments and water utilities to ask about oversight, responsibility and practices. We found cases where the utility covered all costs and other setups where utilities charged departments a hydrant rental fee.

The Warrior River Water Authority serves the area where this fire happened and its general manager told WBRC Fox6 it doesn’t charge for water supply but does charge departments to repair hydrants.

“We don’t have the funding to do that, we’re a volunteer fire department,” said Chief Smith.

He added, “And, we didn’t break the hydrants.”

The Antioch Volunteer Fire Department has only been covering the area where this fire happened since last June. There’s no written agreement in this case, and an attorney general’s opinion from 2015 said without an agreement, the owner of the hydrants should pay for repairs and maintenance.

Chief Smith said he told Warrior River Water Authority about hydrant issues months ago and tried to get help but the general manager of the utility told WBRC said that didn’t happen. While Jefferson County has no control over either, Commissioner Jimmie Stephens said it will act as a mediator to help resolve this problem.

“You would hope that these governmental entities would communicate and work to have a better understanding of what the standard pattern and practice would be and should be, for delivering services, but sometimes things slip through the cracks,” said Commissioner Stephens.

He added, “I will apologize and we will make sure that nothing like this ever happens in the future.”

In the immediate future, the county has asked the fire department and utility to share a list of hydrants that do not work.

Johnson didn’t have insurance and started a GoFundMe to help her replace all she lost and find a new place to live.

“If there was water, I would still have all my stuff. I’d have every bit of it,” said Johnson. “But now I have nothing.”

Click here to contact the WBRC FOX6 News On Your Side Investigation Team.

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