Water Main, Elevation of Property Added to Cafritz Fire Problems, Report Finds

Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. officials said water pressure problems hampered firefighting at the home of civic activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz. The problems involved an aged water main, and the elevation and layout of streets in Cafritz's Northwest Washington neighborhood. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Water pressure problems that hampered firefighting at the home of civic activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz last week resulted from "a unique set of circumstances" involving an aged water main and the elevation and layout of streets in Cafritz's Northwest Washington neighborhood, D.C. officials said in a report Friday.

In a five-page "preliminary review" of water problems associated with the July 31 blaze, which destroyed Cafritz's mansion and her renowned collection of African American art, officials put much of the blame for the low pressure on the underground pipe running past Cafritz's home, in the 3300 block of Chain Bridge Road.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Fire hydrants along the road "are attached to a 75-year-old, cast-iron water main that is approximately 8 inches in diameter," the report says. "While water mains of that age or diameter are not uncommon in the District, and . . . in nearly all cases provide adequate water flow, the two hydrants first used by firefighters at the scene produced only 323 and 296 gallons per minute of water during subsequent water testing."

That amount was "well short of what was immediately needed to fight the fire," the report adds.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at a news conference Friday that a decades-long buildup of mineral deposits in the pipe resulted in far less water flow than would have come from a newer main of that size. He said the area's relatively high elevation also slowed the flow.

Because of the low pressure, firefighters had to string hoses to hydrants connected to other mains in adjoining neighborhoods. However, "Chain Bridge Road is a narrow road . . . and one of the longest stretches of roadway in the District that is uninterrupted by cross streets," the report said. As a result, reaching hydrants in other neighborhoods was "difficult and time-consuming."

Standards developed by the city in recent years call for a minimum capacity of 1,000 gallons of water a minute from any group of hydrants within a 1,000-foot radius.

Fenty said the number of hydrants in and near Cafritz's neighborhood means that the area "fully meets the guidelines." The problem, officials said, is the absence of side streets by which to reach the scattered hydrants.

Referring to hydrants connected to other water mains, Fenty said: "There's a fire hydrant probably within about 200 feet of the Cafritz home, on University Terrace. But it is impossible to get to the hydrant without driving completely around the block, maybe about a mile drive in either direction."

The report was prepared by the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the agency responsible for water flow in the city.

Charles W. Kiely, WASA's assistant general manager for consumer services, said now that authorities understand the pressure and street layout situation in Cafritz's neighborhood, firefighters would attack a blaze in that area differently, lessening the delay in getting water from adjoining neighborhoods.

The mayor said a long-term investigation of the July 31 fire would provide more details about the difficulties firefighters encountered and lead to comprehensive recommendations to overcome obstacles.

"While low water flow unquestionably impacted the time needed to put out the fire," the blaze was so intense and fast-moving that "it is debatable how much of the house's structure and contents could have been saved had water flow been more significant," the report says.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company