Orinda resident fighting for a better fire hydrant

ORINDA – For Nick Lawrence, the effort to get a nearby fire hydrant fixed after it triggered a landslide and caused more than $2 million worth of water damage to neighbors’ homes has dragged on far too long.

He’s been worried that a wildfire could engulf his home on Tappan Terrace in Orinda’s Sleepy Hollow neighborhood ever since an eight-inch pipe attached to the hydrant burst on March 11, 2020, sending water gushing down the hillside.

Despite his repeated emails and phone calls to the East Bay Municipal Utility District — which owns the hydrant and water supply it’s hooked up to — nothing ever seemed to happen. In his opinion his, the two-inch “emergency”hose the district attached to the hydrant as a repair is too small to deliver the volume of water needed to put out a fire.

“My fire hydrant doesn’t work,” Lawrence said. “It disadvantages me, my neighbors, my family, my house and by extension, all the homes in Sleepy Hollow.”

But as of April, after more than two years of feeling like he’s been ignored, Lawrence may finally see some action, thanks to a $2 million-plus settlement that resulted from lawsuits filed against EMBUD by a handful of residents whose homes painstakingly were damaged by the escaped water and landslide.

One of the plaintiffs was David Estopinal, who claimed EBMUD improperly designed the hydrant and pipes leading to it, failed to investigate previous pipe breaks and didn’t respond to witness accounts that water continuously leaked from the pipe months before the rupture. When the pipe finally broke, the water that rushed out collapsed a section of the Tappan Terrace hillside and caused major damage to his property his, Estopinal ‘s suit claimed. He and the other plaintiffs declined to comment for this story.

As part of a group settlement of the lawsuits, Estopinal is to receive $1,548,000 in damages and Lawrence will get $187,000 to reinforce the hillside below his home where the road was washed out from the landslide.

But Lawrence says he won’t be happy until the fire hydrant is replaced or properly upgraded, which still hasn’t happened.

EBMUD spokesperson Andrea Pook said in an interview the district intends to attach a four-inch hose to the hydrant in June, the minimum size required.

The two-inch, above-ground rubber hose EBMUD installed after the landslide on an emergency basis allows only 40 gallons of water per minute to be delivered, a fraction of the 237-gallon capacity of the original steel pipe, EBMUD acknowledges.

Lawrence said he was shocked to discover while taking a walk that all EBMUD had done after the rupture was to replace the pipe with a tiny hose.

He wrote an email to EBMUD general manager Clifford Chan inquiring about the repair, and said Chan’s brother Carlton assured him after an hourlong conversation in April 2021 the hose would be replaced by an eight-inch underground water pipe within two weeks.

In a July 2021 email to his staff obtained by this news organization, Carlton Chan apparently checked into the status of the repair work.

“Have we communicated our plans and schedule to Mr. Lawrence?” Chan wrote. “The last update was that the pipe replacement would begin this month or next. It is important that we maintain good communications with the residents.”

By then, a frustrated Lawrence reached out again to the water district. After getting no response, he showed up to more than a dozen EBMUD board meetings to prod some action. He said the board finally told him on March 8 that the district was close to replacing the two-inch hose.

Pook told this news organization in a February email a four-inch hose would be installed instead of an eight-inch one, but it hinged on getting an easement from Estopinal because it would need to run through his property.

On March 11 — exactly two years after the hydrant’s pipe broke — Pook told this news organization in another email that the hose would be installed in May. The hose’s delivery had been “delayed due to supply chain issues.” In mid-May, Pook said the work had been pushed back to June because the new hose hadn’t arrived yet.

Robert McMullin, an EBMUD engineer, said an order for the four-inch hose was placed in December and he now expects it to arrive on June 3.

Although Tappan Terrace is not on Cal Fire’s list of places considered at high risk for wildfires, it is included in the local wildland urban interface area, meaning there’s still some risk, where houses intermingle with forest and brush.

The Moraga-Orinda Fire District backs up some of Lawrence’s concerns. On Nov. 19, 2021, the fire district cited EBMUD for using a temporary hose that delivers fewer gallons of water per minute than required when nearby homes were built, according to fire Chief Dave Winnacker.

The citation from the fire district did not include a fine but asked EBMUD to “refrain from repeating the violation.” EBMUD did not respond to the fire district, Winnacker said.

Asked if the neighborhood is at risk while the temporary hose is still attached, Winnacker said that depends on a number of variables.

“As a general statement, more water for firefighting purposes is better and the code requirements are considered the minimum,” he told this news organization in an email. “In this case, those are not being met, resulting in the issuance of the citation.”

The EBMUD website lists 38 of the district’s 29,000 hydrants as being out of service, including the one on Tappan Terrace.

Lawrence said he finally saw people start doing preparatory work a few days ago on his street, but the two-inch hose is still there.

“The risk is real, and they have the power to fix it and the obligation to fix it. I can’t fix it,” Lawrence said. “If my street starts to burn, it could be very bad. It could easily spread throughout north Orinda.”

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