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Yellowknife's system to fight fires in hydrant-free areas 'works very well,' says fire chief

Yellowknife’s fire chief is responding to concerns about how the city handles fires in areas without fire hydrants. Bystanders at a fire in Old Town on Tuesday questioned the department's response.

Darcy Hernblad says crew ran out of water for couple of minutes, but had 'endless supply' once system set up

Firefighters on the scene of a house fire in Yellowknife on Tuesday. Some bystanders questioned the way the Yellowknife Fire Department handled its response. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Yellowknife's fire chief is responding to concerns about how the city handles fires in areas without fire hydrants.

A house fire in the Willow Flats area of Old Town on Tuesday had some bystanders questioning the fire department's response. There were reports that the crew ran out of water for a short time, there were pressure issues with hoses and that local water trucks offering to help were turned away.

What happened?

"The crews responded right away," Fire Chief Darcy Hernblad said in an interview on CBC's The Trailbreaker on Thursday.

The fire was in the roof, a place where Hernblad noted fires are "typically difficult to get at."

Hernblad said a crew of four firefighters was on the scene within seven minutes of the call with a pumper vehicle, which holds about 1,500 gallons [about 5,600 litres] of water.

'I know, from a public point of view, sometimes calls look a lot worse than what they are,' says Darcy Hernblad, Yellowknife's fire chief. (CBC)
"It sounds like a lot, but for a working fire, and a fire in a roof space, 1,500 gallons of water is probably not a lot of water."

Hernblad admitted that the crew ran out of water before one of the fire department's two tankers — which hold between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons of water each — arrived.

"They might've been out of water for a couple minutes."

The holdup was a lack of manpower. Hernblad said there were no more firefighters at the fire hall and the department called off-duty and on-call firefighters to help.

Hernblad said he's not aware of any issues with water pressure or hoses at the scene, but said he still has "a lot of investigation to do."

He also noted that, though the home is near the shore of Great Slave Lake, small pumps from the lake don't provide the volume of water that they would've needed to suppress a fire of that magnitude.

Why didn't the fire department accept help from the public?

Local trucked water services were on hand before the fire department arrived, trying to help fight the fire, but they were eventually asked to leave due to safety reasons.

"It's a very difficult situation," Hernblad said.

"I know, from a public point of view, sometimes calls look a lot worse than what they are. 

"We get it that the general public wants to get involved and help out to make a difference, but the safety of those people around a fire where something potentially could go wrong or could cause harm to our firefighters is not a good situation."​

One of the Yellowknife Fire Department's two tankers. The vehicles hold between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons of water. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

What's the system when there are no fire hydrants?

Hernblad said in places where there are no fire hydrants, crews initially use water stored on the pumper vehicle. A tanker, meanwhile, sets up a "swimming pool" of sorts, which the pumper will use as its water supply.

Once it's empty, the tanker refills at the closest hydrant — in Tuesday's case, that was on School Draw Avenue — while the second tanker on the scene keeps the swimming pool full.

"So it's an endless supply of water that we have to fight the fires once we initially get set up," Hernblad said.

"We just keep that cycle going and that's what keeps our water supply going for all fires, whether it's in the Kam Lake industrial area or Old Town.

"And the system works very well."

The cause of the fire in Willow Flats is still unknown.

With files from Loren McGinnis and Rachel Zelniker

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