ISHPEMING - This winter's deep freeze has not only strained infrastructure and stretched municipal budgets in local communities, but has also created challenges for area fire departments that have frequently encountered frozen hydrants while out fighting fires.
The chances this winter that fire crews in Ishpeming and Negaunee will tap a frozen hydrant? About 50 percent, according to Ishpeming Department of Public Works Superintendent Jon Kangas - a number with which Negaunee City Manager Jeff Thornton concurred.
"It's a gamble," Thornton said. "It is a gamble, but the public needs to be reassured that our fire departments are trained on how to handle that."
A fire hydrant at the corner of Euclid and First streets in Ishpeming is shown. The hydrant is currently being used as a temporary service line for businesses and apartments on Canda Street, as the water main beneath Canda is frozen and feared to be split down its length. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
A fire hydrant at the corner of Silver and Jackson streets in Negaunee. Officials in both municipalities say the odds are about 50-50 that a hydrant may be frozen and inoperable due to the unusually harsh conditions from the winter. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Kangas said he believes a majority of hydrants are probably frozen.
"And the reason for it is the water can't circulate in that pipe," Kangas said. "The fire hydrant is basically a dead end, so there's no water moving in that pipe, so it's probably frozen solid in many cases."
Thornton said another factor to consider is whether the hydrant is buried in snow, which can often act as a thermal blanket to keep them from freezing.
He said measures like "adopt a hydrant" programs, which encourage residents to keep fire hydrants clear of snow and accessible - and which in an average winter are an enormous help to local fire crews - can ironically hinder firefighting efforts by exposing more hydrants to the cold.
Similarly, Thornton said he doesn't send people out to test hydrants, because by priming a hydrant - drawing water into it - the odds that it will freeze often increase.
"We don't do it all winter long, because sometimes exposing the hydrant and doing a test would make them vulnerable to freeze-ups," he said.
Luckily, he added, fire departments are trained extensively in the use of tanker trucks that carry water to a fire, and have been especially proactive in dispatching these trucks throughout this year's frigid winter.
"We train on more rural firefighting techniques using the process of dump tanks and shuttling water in," he said. "Like (in last week's fire) on County Road, we called Negaunee Township as soon as we found two of the hydrants frozen - we got on the phone immediately and called in Negaunee Township to act as an additional tanker. So we roll our tankers out early rather than later."
Such mutual aid agreements between area fire departments ensure that by pooling their resources and equipment, firefighters are better prepared to safely subdue blazes.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.