Fire departments look to bolster fire response

After the Maui wildfires, up-Island towns are looking to update water tanks through a state grant.

Aquinnah Fire Station on State Road. —Eunki Seonwoo

After August’s Maui wildfires spurred concerns over the Vineyard’s fire susceptibility, several Island towns are working with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to apply for a community wildfire protection grant from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). 

The grant would involve updating water tanks accessible to fire departments, to increase firefighting water supply.

The application is due Oct. 31, and awards will be issued in spring. The sum of money available is to be determined.

At the Aquinnah Select Board meeting last Tuesday, Aquinnah Fire Chief Simon Bollin discussed fire suppression capacity relative to the grant. 

Bollin also discussed poor ratings of up-Island towns from an insurance perspective. Aquinnah, along with neighboring towns, is rated on the bottom end of a rating system, primarily because the town doesn’t rely on fire hydrants.

Bollin said that an already conducted Island-wide fire hazard assessment is key for the grant.

“[The assessment] looked at where the hot spots were, where issues were. You need that plan to apply for this grant. And from that plan, it shows you all the hazard areas. And a lot of Aquinnah is red, just because it’s not accessible, stuff like that,” Bollin said.

Oak Bluffs is the only town not applying for the grant. Bollin says the town deemed themselves in a sufficient position due to hydrant proliferation, and after discussion with the forest warden.

At the meeting, Bollin shared his goals for Aquinnah. “What I’ve requested from them would be two new tanks. One to replace the failed [6,000-gallon] tank at the Cliffs, and then one to replace the 6,000-gallon tank at the spring [at Aquinnah’s State Road border] with a 20,000-gallon tank,” Chief Bollin said. Bollin would also install a dry hydrant, a form of pipe, in a pond on Lighthouse Road.

“The tank at the Cliffs has been failed since I became chief,” he added.

Bollin says that quotes to address each of the two tanks for Aquinnah range from $100,000 to $120,000. 

Chilmark Fire Chief Jeremy Bradshaw says his town is also seeking funding for two tanks.

Bradshaw says that more water supply is important for his town’s fire safety, especially for brush and forest fires: “If it gets up into the canopy, you need a lot of water. And the more water sources to protect the town, the better.”

“We have a lot of hazard areas, a lot of drought fuel [downed wood],” Bradshaw added. “Standing deadwood is another concern. If we get really big brush or forest fires, there could be trouble.”

In case of a larger fire, Bradshaw said, they have easy access to saltwater. “[In] a big brush fire, we’re pulling saltwater no problem,” he says.

Bollin felt similarly: “In an emergency, 100 percent we can pump saltwater, and we’ve done it plenty of times.”

At the select board meeting, Bollin also discussed poor ratings of up-Island fire suppression from the Insurance Services Office (ISO), an information and tools provider for insurers. 

The topic was raised after Chubb insurance refused to insure the new home of a neighbor of select board chair Tom Murphy.

The refusal cited the town’s firefighting capacity as the deciding factor. Chubb understood that Aquinnah’s capacity was under 10,000 gallons, its minimum requirement given the home’s approximately 5,000-square-foot size.

The homeowner has since received offers from other insurers. Bollin, who spoke recently to prominent insurance market Lloyd’s of London, said that receiving home insurance in Aquinnah is not at risk, and that Chubb misunderstood Aquinnah’s capacity.

At the meeting, Bollin said Aquinnah has a tank gallonage of 32,000, with an additional nearly 500,000 gallons at Pancake Hollow in Aquinnah, and a source at Lighthouse Road. “So we do have water supply. That’s not the issue,” he said.

At the meeting, Bollin said ISO rates Aquinnah, West Tisbury, and Chilmark each a 9 on a 1-to-10 fire-protection-class scale, with 10 marking no fire protection. Bollin said that insurance companies have told him 9 is a fairly standard rating in hydrantless areas. West Tisbury was temporarily rated a 10, beginning in 2003.

Tisbury is rated a 3X. The “X” reflects a lack of hydrants on Lambert’s Cove Road. Bollin says that Tisbury is seeking grant funds due to the situation at that road.

Bollin and Bradshaw say that the ratings have long been a concern of their departments, but that improvements would be very difficult given the resources currently available. Bollin said that West Tisbury has determined that its town will never rank better than 9. He added that an 8 rating would not lower insurance premiums by the same amount for each homeowner.

Bollin said that Aquinnah would struggle greatly to reach an 8, due primarily to the requirement that a fire truck and four firefighters respond to each fire alarm. This would put a severe strain on Aquinnah’s volunteer fire department.

A somewhat more achievable part of the requirements is to be able to flow 250 gallons a minute for two hours. “But,” said Bollin, “that also means draining [water] from wherever it is to the location, so to do that, we’d need two more fire trucks to reach that level.”

“Probably not going to get to an 8,” Murphy then interjected.

Bollin estimates the cost to Aquinnah of reaching an 8 at $750,000, which could include more trucks and personnel.

Toward the flow requirement, Bollin has asked Chubb if it would take into account mutual aid fire suppression responses. Chilmark brings two trucks to any confirmed Aquinnah structure fire, and is about to add a third to its responses. “So, on a first-alarm structure fire, we bring 7,200 g

allons, between Chilmark and Aquinnah, right to the scene, instantly,” said Bollin.

A second-alarm structure fire would bring in West Tisbury and Edgartown, for an initial 12,600-gallon response.

Though the purpose of the MEMA grant is not to improve ISO ratings, Bradshaw says that more tanks underground could make a partial difference: “If [there were] a bunch of buried tanks on wells, that’d help.”


  1. Coming from California and losing our home in the Oakland fire 1991, we learned many things about fire management.
    With wind and fuel ( dry or rotted woodlands) a wildfire travels faster than you can imagine.
    I walk in the trails of Sepessia at least 5 times a week. The amount of dead wood in that area is staggering. You have reported on lodge pole pine infestations in the state forest.

    I believe Martha’s Vineyard needs to address forest control and removal of dead wood . This is what could cause a catastrophic event on the Vineyard.

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