Chief: Lack of hydrant delayed firefighting in Johnston

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Chief: Lack of hydrant delayed firefighting in Johnston

JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Efforts to contain a powerful, gasoline-fed fire at a house in Johnston were made more difficult by a lack of water, according to the fire chief.

Chief Peter Lamb said the home at 1 Finne Road was already engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived on Sunday. But it then took at least ten minutes to get water on the fire because the neighborhood doesn’t have any fire hydrants.

“The nearest fire hydrant that would be in a logical direction was about 3,800 feet away,” Lamb said. That hydrant is on Sanderson Road in Smithfield. “Our trucks carry 1,300 feet of hose, so it took us about four fire trucks to complete this lay.”

The water pressure proved low, leading firefighters to pivot to another Smithfield hydrant in an industrial park behind the Johnston home. Access was impeded by woods and a fence, adding more precious minutes to the job.

“Everybody says we fight fire,” Lamb said. “I like to say, as the fire chief, I fight time.”

The house burned down the foundation. The two residents inside, a man and his elderly mother, escaped unhurt. Several other family members also live there but weren’t home at the time.

Johnston Fire Marshal Thomas Marcello said the fire was accidental and appears to have started while the homeowner was working on his motorcycle in the garage. Gasoline vapors in the air were ignited by the pilot light of a nearby heater. The fire then spread from the garage to the rest of the raised ranch.

“People think gasoline is dangerous,” Lamb said. “It’s really gasoline vapors that are dangerous. The vapors got away, the propane heater kicked on, and that was the source of the ignition which caused the fire.”

He said anyone working with gasoline on a motorcycle, lawn mower or other gas-powered devices should do it outside, where the vapors can dissipate in the air and are less likely to spark.

Neighbors on Monday expressed sympathy for the family, and also concern about the lack of hydrants in the area.

“That’s definitely an issue and actually scares me, living here,” neighbor James Carson said. “What if my house caught fire? If my house caught fire, I’d be in the same predicament as what happened to Kevin next door.”

The neighborhood has well water, not town water, which makes it more difficult and costly to install hydrants, according to Chief Lamb.

“Installation of a water line takes place when the development is built. If we were building a new development today, there would be a water line,” Lamb said. “Obviously, as a fire chief, fire hydrants are much easier for us to suppress the fire.”

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said the residents can ask the town and a utility company to extend water mains into their neighborhood and install hydrants. But he said the homeowners, not the town, would have to pay for the work. And he estimated it could cost tens of thousands of dollars per homeowner.

A spokesperson for the Providence Water Supply Board, which supplies water to Johnston, said residents on Finne Road would most likely want to request that a water main be extended from the Greenville Water District in Smithfield, which is closer. 

In the meantime, a GoFundMe page has been set up in hopes of raising $20,000 for the family. As of Monday evening, more than $4,000 had been collected.

The American Red Cross also said it’s providing assistance to the five adults who were displaced.

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