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High water strains fire crews


Ice knocks out power to sump pumps, boosting calls for help

TAGHKANIC — When a severe ice storm hit southern Columbia County earlier this month, electric utility company workers and highway crews may have been more visible than the local volunteer fire companies. But the fire companies not only extinguished blazes and responded to fallen electrical wires, they faced a big challenge posed by rising water tables, pumping out the basements of residents, many of whom had lost their electricity.

From Sunday night, March 6, when freezing rain turned to gel, then ice that caused trees to fall, downed wires and started fires, until Friday, March 11, when most people had their electric service restored, local fire companies had a hectic week filled with frequent calls at all hours.

During that period accelerating snowmelt caused record quantities of water to inundate southern parts of the county. While some homeowners were prepared for flooding with sump pumps and backup generators to keep their basements dry, others were caught either without pumps or without electricity to run them. They called their fire departments.

At the recent Taghkanic Town Board meeting, firefighter Tony LaSalvia reported that the town Fire Department had pumped out record numbers of homes. “People should be better prepared,” he said. “They should buy pumps.”

The night March 6 started out with a structure fire in Craryville caused by the storm. Craryville, Taghkanic and Hillsdale companies responded. With all the ice, the fire was tough to fight, said  Hillsdale Chief Richard Briggs and Taghkanic Fire Chief Dennis Callahan. By 10:30 p.m. Hillsdale had already responded to its first call for a pump-out.

Later that night local fire departments mobilized when a transformer exploded because of the ice. “We had to cut down trees to get back to the house,” said Mr. Callahan. It was 5 a.m. and firefighters had already answered several other calls. “We were tired,” said the chief.

By the following morning most residents had lost their electricity, and for the next four days fire departments got urgent calls from residents who were struggling, some with three or four feet or more of water in their basements.

“Our pumps are bigger than what most people have at home,” said Mr. Callahan. He said that if water gets into a furnace or electrical outlets it can cause problems. The Taghkanic Fire Company keeps four portable pumps, two extra sump pumps that can be used if somebody has a generator, and two small generators. “If those can’t do it, then we’ll come back and help.”

Back at the firehouse is the department’s old 1942 pumper, often seen in local parades. If needed, that could pump for hours as long as it doesn’t run out of gas. “We didn’t need to use it this time,” he said.

“More people now have sump pumps, but when power went out everybody started calling,” said Chief Callahan.

Homes on Old Route 82, which is in a flood zone, were difficult to get to because part of the road was flooded and a large tree had fallen, but they were able to use an alternative route. Firefighters had to go twice to the Taconic Motel on Route 82, which runs parallel to the Taghkanic Creek, which had risen dramatically.

There’s another problem that comes with pumping water out of basements immediately after a storm. “A lot fill up as soon as you pump them out,” said Craryville Fire Chief Willliam Baker. Firefighters had to return to one house they pumped out after just five hours, because it had about six feet of water in basement again.

Mr. Baker and fire officials said that they no longer use the pumps on their fire trucks to pump out basements. Craryville owns several pumps they call “trash pumps,” that are gas fueled and can draw out 90 to 325 gallons a minute. Homeowners could buy these types of pumps for themselves for $200 to $300.

“If you’re prone to water problems, it’s probably a pretty good investment,” he said. “If they could afford to do it, it would help things a little bit, but if they have a problem, we don’t have a problem helping them.”

The Lebanon Valley Protective Association has a different approach to flooding. Bud Godfroy, fire department volunteer and owner of Godfroy’s Service Station on Route 20, said the department stopped using a fire truck to pump out basements years ago because particulate matter could damage the pump and repairs could cost thousands of dollars. The department recently bought a new “trash pump” to help people when the power is out. “We’re not there as an alternative to owning your own sump pump if you need it, but in an emergency, it’s a different story,” Mr. Godfroy said. 

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