GROTON -- A report on a recent fire has determined that a lack of sufficient water resources was due to a combination of factors beyond the control of the Fire Department and not human error.
"It was a lot more challenging (to get water in the Lost Lake neighborhood) than people think," said Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait at a special meeting of the Board of Selectmen held Monday.
Selectmen were considering the findings of a report on the incident submitted by a committee appointed to review the fire which consumed a residence at 99 Boat House Road.
According to the report, "there were significant water supply issues" after the Fire Department arrived, where a home had been burning for at least 2 1/2 hours before it was reported by neighbors.
In a memorandum to selectmen presented by Bosselait Monday, he said he arrived just after noon May 10 and observed "heavy smoke coming out along the eaves of the roof."
A hose was immediately attached to the Boat House Road hydrant. That is when the problems with water availability began.
"There were multiple issues that contributed to the loss of water during the fire," stated Bosselait.
After some initial fire suppression, water coming from the hydrant seized when a lever on the hydrassist valve attached to it was placed in the "off" position, cutting flow to a relay pump needed to draw water uphill to the site of the fire.
The need to switch relay pumps caused further delay in delivering water to the hoses.
Finally, because water had to be drawn uphill against the pull of gravity, the hose going down the opposite side of the hill to the fire sometimes went empty until enough water could be drawn over the crest.
When enough water had built up, Bosselait told selectmen, it would then rush quickly downhill, hitting the end of the hose with enough force to damage the nozzles.
Such an action was referred to as a "water hammer" which did damage a steamer cap that needed to be replaced.
But beyond that point, there were no more shortages and the fire was extinguished by 3 p.m.
Engines from other towns including Littleton, Dunstable, and Ayer were called in to assist.
Bosselait said no one was inside the structure at the time and that it likely smoldered for a while before bursting into flames.
The intermittent lack of water availability during the first two hours when the department was on the scene drew the concern of fire officials as well as Town Manager Mark Haddad, who asked for a report on the incident.
In the report to selectmen June 24, limited water flow from the Boat House Road hydrant, personnel unfamiliar with the hydrassist valve, untrained personnel assisting with relay pump operations, and "inconsistent labeling of the hydrassist valves in the department," were blamed for the problem.
Recommendations for addressing concerns included reviewing the adequacy of water availability in the Lost Lake area including use of hydrants, dry hydrants, and draft sites; training Water Department employees in operation of the hydrassist valves; making sure firemen are trained in the use of hydrassist valves and relay pump operations; making sure that all hydrassist valves are labeled properly; and possibly hiring more Fire Department employees.
"Hopefully, this was a learning experience for us," said Haddad.
Bosselait said no emergency situation is completely without glitches, but that the May 10 incident bore more directly on a key element in combating fires: The availability of water.
"Let me repeat that this was a very difficult situation," said Bosselait, noting the challenge of drawing water hundreds of feet uphill and then controlling the flow such as to prevent sudden surges that could damage equipment.
Furthermore, other sources of water were also unavailable for use, including lake water that immediately fronted the burning structure.
Haddad expected the committee that wrote the report to continue studying the problem and identify other possible water resources in the area and how they might be used.