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.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...