Fighting the flames had put such a demand on the small local system that the city’s reservoirs dropped to “dangerously low” levels, explained councillor David Chesney.

“We haven’t drained our reservoirs, but they’ve gone down a tremendous amount in fighting this ,”

“We’ve not had any indication that there is a major problem yet, but … we just want to err on the safe side that we don’t endanger anyone’s life,” Chesney said.

White Rock experienced what appears to be a combination of backflow and reservoir drawdown as a result of the fire flows used to fight the fire. As flows increase, pressure drops in the surrounding watermains, potentially to the point where some areas may experience negative pressure, which can cause contaminated water to enter the watermains or even for the watermains to collapse.

White Rock has been in discussions with on what it would cost for the small municipality to join the larger regional water system, which may improve some of these operational challenges…

It would cost the City of White Rock $27 million over the next decade to join the Greater Vancouver Water District, according to a recently released report on the option, which the mayor said this week is not “off the table” just yet…

Incremental costs to the city – to pay for upgrades required to GVWD facilities as a result of the “additional demands” of having White Rock connected – were estimated to be $13.1 million over a nine-year period.

From a water system design perspective, fireflows are generally determined by the type of zoning and construction of the buildings involved, and in all cases a minimum pressure at that flow must be maintained to ensure that back flow issues do not occur and flows can continue to be delivered for the fire and for all other customers. For example many municipalities specific a minimum flow of 150 l/sec for multi-family dwellings, with a minimum pressure of 20 psi anywhere in the system as a result of these flows. With the reports coming out of White Rock, it appears that the system was unable to provide the flows used by the fire department without impacting the security of the water supply. Thankfully the fire was able to be contained to the immediate area and didn’t spread any further, however over 60 units were lost and about 100 people are without homes as a result.

The City of White Rock is not alone in dealing with infrastructure challenges and fireflows. For example, the City of has been dealing with several projects to improve fire flows in the community. The largest project is the Big Eddy Water upgrade, which received several million dollars in provincial and federal funding,with the remaining funds coming from the water system users for the long term upgrades that include improving fire flow capacity. As is seem above, costs for White Rock to join MetroVancouver’s system, the provision of a secure water supply can be extreme for small municipalities, and there are many competing demands for funds, with responses often being that “the system has served us well so far, so why do we need to change?” Expectations of health and safety are ever increasing, and the upgrades required to meet these are often competing with more popular projects.

Long-term sustainable and safe water supply is governed by regional health authority requirements in BC. Some of the necessary components of a drinking water program include:

  • Treatment and barrier approach
  • Good governance
  • Emergency response planning
  • Monitoring and measurement
  • Funding for operations and maintenance to cover lifecycle costs
  • Continuous Improvement and training

Incident such as this reminds us of the importance of each of these components, and that systems improve through monitoring incidents and issues and learning from failures.

One of the challenges faced was the lack of an emergency phone number for after-hours emergencies, from news reports and the City of White Rock’s website, it appears that emergency calls after-hours were forwarded to the Fire Department, rather than directly to public works staff. Without knowing the details, this likely slowed down the response from the water utility crew, who may have been able to increase flows from the aquifer or otherwise assist the fire department in managing the water supply for the fire. The ability to communicate with and call-out the appropriate qualified staff to assist is an important part of a municipal water emergency response plan.

I wonder if this incident will precipitate further community discussion on joining MetroVancouver’s water service, and whether in the future it will be seen as the tipping point for that decision?

Feature Photo Credit: BC Emergency Photos via Compfight cc

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.