No hydrants in Barrington Hills, other suburbs a challenge for firefighters

The fire that gutted a Barrington Hills mansion earlier this month illustrates the kind of herculean challenge that suburban fire departments face when battling blazes in neighborhoods that lack the fire hydrants many communities take for granted.

In all, 40 fire companies from departments as far away as Hebron, Des Plaines, Hanover Park and West Chicago converged on Barrington Hills April 18 to blast the fire with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. But instead of hooking their hoses to nearby hydrants, all of that water had to be brought in from elsewhere in trucks, ratcheting up the degree of difficulty for firefighters.

“Having to bring water in on wheels is time-consuming,” said Deputy Chief Rich May of the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District. “The planning behind it is done quite well, but you can't move it like tapping into a fire hydrant. There's just no comparison.”

The “wheels” May refers to are trucks called water tenders, which can carry about 3,000 gallons of water at a time. That isn't as much as it sounds, though, because a typical fire hose unloads 200-300 gallons every minute.

“The clock is always ticking,” said Chief Jeff Steingart of the Vernon Hills-based Countryside Fire Protection District. “One load can only get them about 10 minutes of water, and then they have to drive back to the hydrant, fill it up — which takes some time — drive back, dump it and do it again.”

Sam Giordano, the coordinator of Fire Science and Emergency Management Programs at Harper College, said shuttling water is challenging and takes a lot of personnel and equipment, but there is no other alternative to fighting a fire without a hydrant nearby.

“That's tough. That's very, very tough,” said Giordano, who worked for 35 years in Chicago-area fire services before becoming a teacher. “But firefighters are very well-trained and very well-versed in doing this operation.”

For any fire, but especially one fought without the benefit of hydrants, every second matters. Fire doubles in size every minute, so any delay in getting water to the scene can mean a larger, more destructive fire.

“A delayed response or a delayed discovery fire takes considerably more water,” said Chief Patrick Mullen of the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District. “It can get to a point where if your (need for) water is large enough, it is difficult for tenders to keep up.”

During the Barrington Hills blaze, at least 18 tenders circled to and from the scene for about four hours before the bulk of the fire had been put out, Steingart said.

Adding to the challenge, Giordano said, is that fires today are more difficult to fight than in years past.

“Years ago we had a lot of natural-based materials in houses,” he said. “Nowadays, with all of the synthetic products in the homes, such as plastics, they burn hotter and burn faster.”

That means houses burn hotter and collapse sooner, Giordano added.

Despite the size of the Barrington Hills fire — and the challenge the lack of hydrants presented — Steingart said first responders got the help they needed without jeopardizing the safety of other communities in the process.

“No one community could afford to equip and staff for those big incidents,” he said. “We have a pretty effective system in place to share resources for the large emergencies and keep the local communities protected at the same time.”

Given the village's lack of water system and regulations requiring minimum lot sizes of 5 acres, it's not likely Barrington Hills residents will see hydrants near their homes anytime soon. However, fire officials said there are some steps homeowners can take to help make firefighters' jobs easier.

For starters, Steingart said homeowners should call 9-1-1 immediately when fire occurs, even if they think they can extinguish the flames themselves.

“Sometimes people try to fight the fire themselves and the fire gets out of control, so by the time we arrive we are down in the count a little bit,” Steingart said. “Just call those three little numbers that get you instant services and solve your problems.”

May said his district recommends homeowners buy monitoring systems that will automatically alert their local department if fire breaks out.

“If you're out to dinner and there was some problem in you home, who is going to see it?” May said. “Your neighbor isn't going to know about the fire until its too late.”

May also recommends fire sprinklers in homes.

Longtime Barrington Hills Village Administrator Robert Kosin said the village mandates hard-wired smoke detectors in homes, but does not require sprinklers or monitoring systems.

“There is no prohibition from the village for a homeowner to install it themselves,” he added.

On Tuesday, fire investigators announced that the mansion fire was caused by a small, controlled burn that spread to the home. With the help of high winds, flames traveled from brush to evergreen bushes next to the home, and then to the home's exterior, according to investigators, who ruled the fire an accident.

Barrington Countryside Fire District officials, who led the effort against the April 18 fire in Barrington Hills, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Barrington Hills home destroyed in fire

Cause of fire remains under investigation

Revisiting sprinklers

  The massive fire that engulfed a Barrington Hills mansion April 18 served as a stark reminder of the challenges some suburban fire departments face when battling blazes in neighborhoods that lack hydrants or another easily accessible supply of water. More than a dozen tanker trucks from across the suburbs delivered water to the scene for four hours as firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control. Bob Chwedyk/
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