New fire equipment can shoot water from bay to hills

Each pump can shoot 6,000 gallons a minute

During the 1991 Oakland hills fire, which destroyed more than 2,500 homes in Berkeley and Oakland and killed 25 people, firefighters were stymied by a lack of water.

The pumps that pushed water through the water mains and into the hills failed when the electricity went off. Scores of houses burned because they could not be protected.

That fire, along with the knowledge that an earthquake on the Hayward fault could cripple water mains, promoted Berkeley residents to pass Measure Q in 2000. The measure authorized the sale of $9.6 million in bonds to purchase an above-ground transportable unit that could pump water from San Francisco Bay into the hills.

On Thursday, fire officials unveiled the city’s spanking new Hytrans Fire System mobile pump. Dozens of firefighters, city officials, and others gathered in the parking lot of H. Lordship’s Restaurant in the Marina to watch a demonstration of the machine, which is the first of its kind in the U.S.

“This technology is ideal for the topography of Berkeley and also provides a back-up water supply to support firefighting efforts during a disaster,” said Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor.

Fire chief Debra Pryor

The system works by lowering two mobile pumps into any large body of water. In Berkeley, that might be the bay, Lake Anza or Lake Temescal.

The pumps then flush the water through a more powerful pump, which is enclosed in a bright-red rectangular box that can be transported on a flat bed truck. That pump accelerates the speed of the water flow.  Each unit (and Berkeley bought two) can pump 6,000 gallons of water a minute. That means firefighters can have 12,000 gallons of water a minute to use in fighting fires.

Two floating pumps suck up water

The city purchased six miles of twelve-inch wide hose. Firefighters hook those up to the mobile pump and then to one another, making it possible for water to be delivered high into the hills.

“It creates an above ground water main and we have different fittings that can tap into any configuration,” said Pryor.

The system can also be used to pump water out of an area after it has flooded.

In most fires, firefighters will rely on Berkeley’s existing water mains. The mobile units are intended for use during a disaster or wildfire.

The main mobile pump

Hytrans Fire Systems of Holland constructed the two massive mobile pumps, and designed them specifically for Berkeley, said Robert Hut, the company’s managing director.

This is the first large-scale system in use in the United States and company officials are hoping it prompts other cities to take a look at the device. Both the UK and Mexico have more than 50 of these mobile pumps, said Michael Issa, a Houston-based dealer for the company. They are smaller, though, and deliver less water per minute. In Mexico, most are stationed a petroleum refineries.

Hoses that carry the water

The mobile pumps cost $4.7 million. Other bond money was used to construct a storage facility for the pumps on Ashby near Ninth Street.

Since Berkeley has a mutual aid agreement with surrounding cities, the cities of Oakland, Albany, Hayward and elsewhere can also have access to the unit.

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  • not gruntled

    This is extremely important. When the “Big One” hits, the death and destruction will come from fire, not the quake, like in 1906. With broken water mains, the fire will rage unchecked just like it did during the Oakland Hills Fire, except this time we will see many different fires starting in many different locations. I found it instructive sitting on my roof and watching the Hills Fire move quickly downwind and also upwind, but more slowly.

    I don’t think one of these units will be enough. Realistically, neighborhoods should probably get together and invest in portable foam fire suppression equipment to save their blocks. This is one of the few taxes I’d be willing to vote for.

  • I’m curious how long it would take to deploy the system, esp. the time to lay out up to 6 miles of hose.

  • Tom


    According to the mfr the hose can be laid out at a rate of 40km/h, which would equate to about 15 minutes for all 6 miles. Of course, I’m sure there’s more to it than that but it sounds better than manually screwing together 20-foot pieces.

    I wonder what route(s) they have incorporated into the various deployment plans.

    As for mutual aid .. that’s great if Oakland ponies up for a few of these too. I’ll be bummed if my Measure Q money is busy in Piedmont after the big one while my house burns down.