City of Marfa continues to address long-awaited fire hydrant repairs 

Staff photo by Maisie Crow

MARFA — Efforts to repair the city’s inoperable fire hydrants are ongoing, but continue to experience delays due to lack of training, supplies and the interference of other projects, according to city officials.

It remained unclear as of press time exactly how many hydrants remain inoperable, due to conflicting information from city departments. Fire hydrants are city property, and are the Public Works Department’s responsibility to maintain. But it is the Marfa Volunteer Fire department that inspects the hydrants and is tasked with creating a report detailing their findings twice a year. 

The fire department’s most recent report, dated February 2023 but presented to City Manager Mandy Roane and Mayor Manny Baeza in September, shows seven inoperable hydrants, four of which were tagged with “Out of Service” signs. Public Works Supervisor Chuck Salgado, who is managing the hydrant repairs, said he had been aware of only three, but was seeing the document for the first time. 

Both Salgado and Fire Chief Gary Mitschke had not seen the report, which was generated by volunteer firefighters.

The City of Marfa has been slowly working towards repairing its defunct fire hydrants for years, since the burning of an iconic structure brought the issue to the forefront. In June 2021, when the Judd Architecture building caught fire, a faulty hydrant delayed firefighter response by 20 to 30 mins. Shortly thereafter, The Big Bend Sentinel obtained records that showed there were at least 11 malfunctioning hydrants across the city. 

That was according to a fire hydrant inspection report completed in October 2019 by the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department. At the time, City Manager Mandy Roane said the Public Works Department — then headed up by Jeff Boyd — was aware of the inoperable hydrants but never conducted repairs, and inspections had lapsed due to the pandemic. 

In May of 2022, Roane reported that all but six hydrants had been repaired, and two more were expected to undergo repairs that month.

Having now viewed the most recent fire department report, Salgado was unable to immediately speak to its accuracy, but said his department was going to “perform preventative maintenance on those requiring it, like hard to turn valves.” They also plan to pressure test a handful of hydrants indicated to have low to mid flow, he said, and were aware of other issues presented in the report. 

He said so far the hydrants that have been fixed were relatively easy to repair, requiring previously shut off valves to be turned back on and more. 

“Majority of the ones that were already repaired, they were seized up,” said Salgado. “They hadn’t been lubricated in a while, hadn’t been used.”

Those remaining will require more complicated repairs. Fire hydrant repairs are being put on pause while the city is completing the construction of its new groundwater storage tank so as to not stress the system, said Salgado.

The fire hydrant on Highland and West Oak that failed during the Judd Architecture fire is one that will require a more complex repair, including cutting into the concrete to reach the valve, said Salgado, who said work on it would begin soon. 

In addition to hydrant parts being back ordered, Roane previously told The Big Bend Sentinel training public works staff on how to repair the hydrants in house was another reason for delays. 

Mitschke, who eventually gained access to the latest inspection report, said even with the existing inoperable hydrants, the fire department is confident there are an adequate number of those in operation to cover the city. 

“We do have overlapping services, for the most part, on these [hydrants] where we’re able to still reach all of the areas with the amount of supply line we have on the truck,” said Mitschke.

He said the hydrants are an important part of the city’s water infrastructure, and like other aspects of the system, are aging and costly to maintain. Costs to completely replace fire hydrants can climb into the thousands. 

The MVFD is working on updating its fire hydrant maps, he said, as well as standardizing report nomenclature in regards to flow levels and more. Generally speaking, flow wise, hydrants located in the city center closer to the municipal water wells have higher pressure than those further out of town, he said. 

Regarding the recent miscommunication between the city and volunteer fire department regarding the hydrants, Mitschke said there were likely improvements to the process that could be made, and he plans to meet with the city soon to discuss the status of the repairs. But it was paramount that the city has fire hydrants in good working order. 

“It’s important, it’s one of those things: out of sight, out of mind until you need it,” said Mitschke. “It’s kind of like the fire department. We’re not really that important until you need us, and then we’re really important.”