GARDINER — Efforts to extinguish a large fire that destroyed a Deane Street family’s barn and likely their home over the weekend were made more challenging by small old water mains in the neighborhood.

The water mains were quickly overwhelmed as firefighters sought a large amount of water sufficient enough to do battle with the massive flames, officials said Tuesday.

Fire Chief Al Nelson said the 6-inch water mains that serve the neighborhood on and around Dresden and Lincoln avenues are likely fine for meeting the normal needs for water by homeowners, but couldn’t keep up with the demand for water flow from firefighters armed with 2.5-inch hoses capable of moving 250 gallons of water a minute.

“We were trying to flow so much water, because it was such a big fire, that we kind of overwhelmed the system,” Nelson said Tuesday. “You’ve got an old system, where the mains are small, that’s just what it is. It was a little concerning for a few minutes, until we got it sorted out.”

Nelson said he doesn’t think having a full flow of water, such as is available in areas of the city, where newer, larger eight and 10-inch water mains have been installed, would have made much of a difference in efforts to fight the fire that destroyed Tom and Leanna Bustos’ barn and heavily damaged their attached home at 12 Deane St. Saturday night.

“I don’t believe it contributed to the fire spreading any, because we were using what we had to keep things at bay, keep it out of the house,” Nelson said. “We focused on keeping fire out of the house. And when we got our water supply back, we went back to focusing on both,” keeping fire out of the house and extinguishing the already-raging fire in the small but multiple-story barn.

Nelson said once firefighters realized they weren’t getting the amount of water flow they were looking for, they took steps to address the problem, taking water from a different hydrant connected to larger water mains on Brunswick Avenue and moving water to the fire scene by tanker trucks. He said dealing with the lack of water flow likely only took a short amount of time.

“The takeaway is these crews did an amazing job, even dealing with this water issue,” Nelson said. “It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably only about five minutes. That fire did not progress through the house, and it very well could have. So the guys did an amazing job. We made it work.”

Paul Gray, superintendent of Gardiner Water District, which is independent of the city and is responsible for providing public water, acknowledged the water mains in that area are undersized and have been identified as in need of replacement. He said the 6-inch cast iron water mains were probably installed in the 1930s or 1940s.

He said smaller old water mains like that are fairly commonplace, and not just in Gardiner. He said they are widespread, and costly to replace.

“Back in those days, that’s what they put in for water mains,” Gray said. “They’re everywhere, (water districts) pick away at is as you can, but it’s so expensive to put water pipe in the ground.”

He said replacing water lines can cost about $1 million per mile, and that neighborhood has about 2 miles of 6-inch main.

He said replacing those mains is on the district’s capital improvement plan, which extends out 20 years, but said he’s not sure when that work could be done because there is currently no money available to pay for the work. He said the district is currently reviewing its master plan for such work.

“For domestic water use, they’re perfectly adequate,” Gray said of the 6-inch mains. “It’s a fire protection issue more than anything else. A six-inch pipe only carries so much water, not as much as firefighters would like. Not as much as we’d like to give them.”

Nelson said the fire was raging when firefighters got on the scene, prompting the need to hit back with as much water as they could muster.

“The fire had a huge start on us, there was a lot of fire when the guys showed up,” he said. “The bigger the fire, the more water we’re putting on it. They went with big water right from the beginning, which is what they should have done. But we maxed it out.”

Nelson said the water mains in the area probably flow at a maximum rate of somewhere around 500 gallons a minute, so with two, two-and-a-half hoses taking water from the main at a rate of 250 gallons a minute, the main couldn’t keep that full flow going for long.

Sgt. Scott Richardson, of the Office of the State Fire Marshall, said Tuesday the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

Tom Bustos and the couple’s 15-year-old son were home at the time of the fire, but made it out unharmed. No firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, which singed treeptops well above the peak of the home’s roof.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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