Howard mansion's newest accessory

Huge water tank boosts fire safety

August 29, 2006|By Jorge Valencia | Jorge Valencia,Sun reporter

In case of emergency, the Hewitt home in western Howard County is prepared.

The 18,000-square-foot home has 32 fire detectors, wall-mounted fire hoses hooked into the plumbing, a phone in each of the 11 bedrooms, a circuit breaker box plus two flashlights on each of the four floors, 12 sets of emergency lights and a 100,000-watt, diesel-fueled generator.

And by December, owner Lee Hewitt Jr. is hoping to install the biggest piece of his home protection system: a 20,000-gallon underground water tank in front of his Cooksville mansion for use in the event of fire.

County fire officials say they can protect the house just as firefighters have done for decades in rural areas across the country: with tanker trucks and water borrowed from area ponds and swimming pools.

But that's not enough to comfort Hewitt, who has seen other homes in the area burn.

In late June, a fire sparked by lightning destroyed a $1.2 million, 5,300-square-foot home less than two miles from Hewitt's and miles from the nearest fire hydrant. Firefighters had to haul in water and dump it into temporary holding pools so their pumpers could fight the flames.

Two years ago, another fire caused more than $6 million in damage to a 28,000-square-foot mansion in Clarksville.

"You assume the fire department's going to have enough water, but the big house burned down, and you learn," said Hewitt, who lives in his house with his wife and two young children.

It's a lesson familiar to longtime residents of rural areas - and, increasingly, their new neighbors who are moving to the edge of the suburbs where ready access to water is not a given.

Some take extra precautions. In Howard County, the Glenwood Senior Center and Glenwood Library both have emergency water tanks. The Woodmark neighborhood in the western county - with the nearest water hydrant four miles away - installed a dry hydrant last year to pump water from a nearby pond.

In Carroll County, a rural water tank supply program calls for phasing in, at two a year, the installation of 30,000-gallon water tanks in "dry areas" more than two miles from running water.

"Before, when you lost a $50,000 home, nobody paid attention," said Bobby Balta, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association. "Now, when you lose a million-dollar home, everybody pays attention."

Fire officials say the three stations in western Howard County are fully prepared to fight any blaze in their area, where residences are more spread apart and response times can be longer than in more densely populated areas. They do so, though, without direct access to the county's public water system.

Howard's public water system serves the county's most populated areas, such as Columbia, Ellicott City and Elkridge. That's in line with county planning aimed at keeping certain areas rural and steering the densest development toward existing infrastructure, according to Bob Beringer, Howard County's utilities chief.

"If you choose to live in a rural area, then it's your own lifestyle choice," said Beringer.

Local firefighters are accustomed to the hurdles they face in responding to rural calls.

"The biggest challenge is to keep that water flowing uninterrupted," said Bill Mould, a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "Depending on how far [fire trucks] have to travel, there's always that possibility they won't have that uninterrupted flow."

In upscale neighborhoods such as the one where the Hewitts live the primary development debates in Howard have focused on land preservation.

"I haven't heard anything about restricting development because of water capacity or fires or the ability to put out fires in those areas," said Cindy Hamilton, chief of the planning department's Division of Land Development.

Although there were other factors besides access to water that complicated firefighters' response to the 2004 fire in Clarksville - including the remote location and the need to quickly search for occupants - it pushed Hewitt to pursue an emergency water source for his home, which he began building in spring 2002.

Hewitt, who owns an engineering firm that does government and private consulting, is apparently the first person to install such a tank for private use, according to various county officials.

The 36-year-old engineer, who grew up in Cooksville, designed the house with his wife, Michelle, and the couple directed its construction full time until fall 2004.

One of the many safety features already has paid off, when lightning rods atop the house grounded a lightning strike June 27, resulting in nothing more than the power going out in two rooms. The next night, their neighbor's house was hit by lightning and burned down.

"The general idea of these safety and security features is that it is better to build them in initially, rather than retrofit them later on," Hewitt said. "In addition, they provide value in a number of ways."

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