By John Anderson
Last week, Fire Lieutenant Shawn Steele spent six hours driving around Auburn and identifying hydrants that were buried in snow. He found close to 100 that needed to be cleared. Residents using the recently created email address email@example.com reported another 25. This meant that nearly a quarter of Auburn’s 500 fire hydrants weren’t accessible if needed.
A multi-department effort on Friday, which included National Guard airmen, not only dug out every known hydrant but also cleared sidewalks and intersections on busy Southbridge St. Although the Commonwealth plows Rte. 12, the town is responsible for the sidewalks that are quickly buried with 2-3 lanes of plowed snow.
Requests for assistance from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) are made by Auburn’s Emergency Management Director Roger Belhumeur. He takes the requests of Department Heads like DPW Director Bill Coyle and Fire Chief Steve Coleman and funnels them to the Agency.
Belhumeur credits Town Manager Julie Jacobson with great coordination of all town departments during these crisis periods. “Julie is excellent at this.” He also told Auburn Mass Daily, “We knew we had a problem with hydrants. So, a request was put in for some help.”
On Friday morning, five airmen from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard based out of Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield arrived with shovels at the ready. Although the four men and one woman have logistical and communications jobs in the military, they also have the physical component that was so needed.
Two backhoes from the DPW and one from the Auburn Water District had already broken through the cement like packed snow along the curb, and the crews only had to shovel a wide margin around each hydrant. By lunchtime, about 80 hydrants were cleared by the four teams that included on duty fire personnel.
Two large front-end loaders from the Massachusetts DOT dug away on Southbridge along with a winged excavator from the Auburn DPW. The snow was pushed back and sidewalks were passable. Of course, that was Friday, and the weekend storm certainly added some snow.
Five dump trucks and two backhoes were also secured to help clear snow from school parking lots. Last week, the Auburn High lot was only able to handle about half the number of cars that it usually does.
Belhumeur said this type of statewide cooperation was a positive outcome from the blizzard of ’78, a largely forgotten event that paralyzed the state for nearly a week.
Such cooperative interagency efforts are quite refreshing in this era of political standstill. All Auburn residents should give a hearty “thank you” to the dedicated town, state, and military employees. They have mitigated this emergency well.
Don’t forget to clear nearby hydrants and, if you can’t, at least notify the Auburn Fire Rescue Department of the situation.