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Great Falls mansion burns to the ground

A Sept. 8 fire in Great Falls that reduced a $1.2 million home to ashes has also sparked some debate as to the absence of fire hydrants in approximately half of the Great Falls area.

The 12,000-square-foot home that was undergoing renovation in Great Falls was a complete loss after fire burned it to the ground, according to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue officials.

Firefighters said they were called to the fire in the 1000 block of Leigh Mill Road shortly after 2 a.m. and found 80 to 90 percent of the home already burning.

Because the home was located in an area where there are no fire hydrants, firefighters initiated a water shuttling operation, using tanker trucks that had to carry water to the scene of the fire.

Firefighters said they also had to dam nearby Difficult Run stream to use as their primary water supply for the tanker trucks.

“We utilized a rural water supply,” said Dan Schmidt, public information officer for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue.

Capt. Oscar Wells of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Station No. 12 in Great Falls said there are no fire hydrants in Great Falls north of Georgetown Pike, making fighting fires in those areas a much different experience for firefighters.

“About 50 percent of Great Falls has hydrants and the other 50 percent doesn’t,” he said.

Because such a large area of Great Falls does not have hydrants, the Great Falls fire station houses a water tanker truck that is able to carry 2,500 gallons of water, as well as a fire engine truck that can carry 750 gallons. “The North Point station [in Herndon] also has a tanker truck that is part of our tanker task force,” said Schmidt.

For fires in non-hydrant areas, fire crews go to the nearest water source available, often streams, ponds or creeks, and draft water from that source to shuttle it to the fire on a relay system. As one vehicle is being used, another is filling up.

“Using that system, the water goes pretty fast,” said Wells. “While suppressing a fire, we can be pumping 1,000 gallons a minute, so even with two tanker trucks, that’s only about five minutes of continuous water.”

But the reason that half of Great Falls has no hydrants is not an oversight. It is actually what many residents there want. Great Falls has traditionally kept attempts at installing municipal water systems and sewers at bay. By policy, Fairfax County is prevented from establishing sewer districts without community support. And in 2005, a proposal by the Fairfax County Water Authority to install a municipal water pipeline down Arnon Chapel Road to a subdivision north of Georgetown Pike was met with immediate resistance and a petition against the proposal that garnered 500 signatures in less than six hours. “Many larger lots in those areas have well water and septic tanks and there are a lot of purists that don’t want county water or sanitary sewer systems installed because they don’t want to invite the potential for subdivisions and higher density,” said Dranesville Supervisor John Foust (D).

“It’s a rural trade-off,” said Great Falls Citizens Association President Eric Knudsen. “We value our rural small-town way of life here and to preserve it, we realize there are certain concessions we have to make, and certain things — like the availability of more fire hydrants — that we just have to do without.”

But firefighters keep hoping a day will come when they can do away with outdated firefighting techniques of using ponds and streams to fight fires in Great Falls.

“If we can get our full tanker task force of four tankers and two engines to the scene of a fire, we can get about 18 minutes of continuous water flow and usually have more than enough water for any fire,” said Wells. “But in general, it would be easier to have the use of hydrants.”

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