By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
One year ago tonight, one of West Seattle’s most ferocious fires in years destroyed a home in the 10200 block of 41st SW in Arbor Heights.
We wouldn’t usually revisit a fire on its first anniversary. This one, however, affected the lives not only of the home’s owners and renters, but also of those who live in the surrounding area.
It revealed “fire flow” water-system shortfalls that left some of the firefighters helpless for many long minutes to stop the roaring flames destroying the home and threatening to spread. Photos like this one showed their lines, waiting to be filled:
The problems even resulted in a City Council briefing, and a plan for improvements.
So tonight, we look at what’s happened since. First: The immediate effects of the fire – a home, destroyed. What was left of the gutted house was torn down, and the lot remains empty to this day (as reflected even in the official county online records). We went by this morning:
This evening, we spoke by phone with Renée, whose sister was at the time of the fire renting the house, which is owned by their parents. She told WSB the family expects to build a new home on the site by the end of this year. Along with the water-main work that the city is planning, that means two construction projects are about to begin in the wake of the August 27, 2011, fire, that sent up black smoke visible for miles around:
(The 8/27/11 smoke, seen from Constellation Park south of Alki Point)
Renée says construction hasn’t begun yet for the new house because the permit process has taken a while. Her sister, meantime, moved to Burien. She got out OK; so did her cat (who was somewhat singed) and dogs, but she lost smaller pets in the fire. A firefighter was hurt, too.
(City investigators blamed the fire on spontaneous combustion in an old portable firepit; the family said their investigator blamed faulty wiring.)
The cause of the fire was not the big story that night, though. The fire might not have gutted the house if not for the water problems – which required, the city said, a hose run of almost half a mile to get an adequate flow, finally, after 35 minutes:
Most of the supply problems traced back to the area’s unincorporated days, decades earlier, with smaller mains installed by a county water district. Property owners had been asked twice to pay for upgrades through a taxing district, and twice said no.
Now, the city will pay about $2 million for upgrades. The water-main replacement project was described in a community meeting we covered back in January – here’s the map showing where they are to be made.
The first, smallest part of the project – a 75-foot stretch of water-main replacement along Roxbury, west of 35th – was completed last February. The city also replaced eleven Arbor Heights hydrants and installed one, all to take better advantage of the wider mains that were already available in part of the area.
Now, the bulk of the work, with new mains and more new hydrants, is coming up this fall. Since the last community briefing was more than half a year ago, we contacted Seattle Public Utilities for an update. Spokesperson Ingrid Goodwin says the project is expected to break ground in late September or early October. The contract hasn’t been awarded yet, so we don’t know who the contractor will be; Goodwin said that information “should be available the first week of September.”
We asked if there had been changes since the plans presented back in January. Goodwin replied, “The overall scope of the project is the same. Some items have been slightly shifted or revised, but nothing significant has changed.” That means, as we originally reported last December, that within months, all of Arbor Heights will be within 1000 feet of an 8-inch water main – the current standard- and 87 percent will be no further than 500 feet from one.
A big issue for residents will be advance warning when construction is headed to their part of the neighborhood. Here’s how Goodwin says that will work:
SPU will send out a public notice to residents and businesses about the project, outlining what to expect, what the impacts will be during construction, how or if they should prepare in any way, what the benefits of the project will be, etc. We may also make some onsite visits to the neighborhood and post information in the construction zone. The public can expect to begin to see notifications in September 2012. In cases where residents will have their water temporarily shut off to allow for the work, SPU will provide as much notice as possible. At the minimum, residents will receive a yellow door hanger at their homes 48 hours in advance of a scheduled water shut down.
Until the contractor is chosen, they won’t know exactly where the project will begin, but SPU promises they will share the construction schedule when it’s available. Assuming they do indeed start work by early October, the goal, Goodwin says, is for “all water mains and hydrants installed by the end of the year … Street restoration will follow.”
And so, likely, will peace of mind for Arbor Heights residents who have been hoping since last year’s fire that there won’t be a repeat before the water supply is up to fire-flow standards for all.
(PHOTO CREDITS: Fire scene photography from 8/27/11 used here was by Katie Meyer, Tony Bradley, and Tracy Record; the smoke photo was from Tina Doherty)