Shovels in hand, the firefighters of Engine 3 stared incredulously at the 8-foot pile of dirty snow on East Dedham Street Tuesday.
“There’s a hydrant in there?” asked John Varner, halfway through a 48-hour shift and squinting through his glasses. A hand-painted red and white sign, striped like a barber’s pole, stuck up out of the snowbank and announced “Hydrant,” with two arrows pointing down into the snow pile, which was big enough to hide 10.
They attacked the heap, two men on each side and snow flying furiously, until it emerged: one of the more than 13,000 fire hydrants in the city that Boston firefighters have dug out before and will dig out again. And again. And again.
“People don’t realize how important it is. You delay a small fire, and suddenly, it’s out of control. Seconds, it’s literally seconds,” Lieutenant Kevin Jordan said. “Good chance tomorrow, they’ll be plowed back in.”
The snowiest 30 days in Boston’s history have turned streets and sidewalks into mazes of towering snow heaps and have left the city scrambling to keep hydrants clear. While officials ticket property owners who do not shovel their sidewalks, there is no penalty for ignoring the fire hydrants on city property. So, all officials can do is encourage people to be good neighbors and point out that in case of a fire, they will be very unhappy indeed if their nearest hydrant is encased in ice.
The tank of a fire engine holds enough water for about two to five minutes — or about two rooms’ worth — of firefighting, Jordan said. After that, firefighters need another source of water. Seconds spent digging can add up fast.
On a normal day in Boston, there are 263 firefighters on duty, department spokesman Steve MacDonald said. But during major snowstorms, each truck gets an extra person, for a total of 57 extra bodies. And when firefighters are not out answering calls, they are shoveling. The city has had four major fires, one fatal, since the blizzard at the end of January, MacDonald said, but so far, buried hydrants have not interfered with firefighting.
But, he said, “it’s a gamble.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the crew working on Engine 3 — Varner, Jordan, and firefighters Matthew Brady, Dara Nunan, and Phil Holda — were on their second hydrant-digging mission of the day. After unearthing their first hydrant, they set off on foot in search of others, armed with a dense, color-coded map and trailed by the fire engine, their shovels slung over their shoulders.
As they rounded the corner onto Albany Street, Jordan stopped in his tracks to stare at a long, unbroken wall of snow.
“Oh, man,” he murmured.
Each hydrant needs to be shoveled to about a foot below the valve where the hose attaches, with about 2 feet of clearance in every direction so firefighters can spin the hydrant wrench.
“This is bad. No sooner do we do them, we’re back out doing them,” Jordan said. “This is the worst [winter] I’ve ever had. I’m in my 30th year.”
Still, his crew was in good spirits, teasing Jordan about his classic firefighter’s salt-and-pepper mustache — “Only a boss could grow a mustache like that,” Holda told him admiringly. And they worked fast, revealing hydrant after hydrant in three-minute bursts.
Nunan, who graduated from the Boston Fire Academy just before the first blizzard hit, was sanguine about the amount of time he has so far spent shoveling. “Someone’s gotta do it,” he said, as he and Holda headed toward Massachusetts Avenue, jammed their shovels into a snow bank, and listened for the “ping” of metal on metal. “I just didn’t know we were gonna get this much snow.”
The shoveling is good practice for the new guys, said Holda, who has been on the job for nearly 10 years. Digging out the hydrants gets them familiar with their district, so they can find a hydrant by landmark and memory instead of map.
“You know the old Bull Heaney story?” asked Jordan, who loves a good Bull Heaney story.
“What’s that?” asked Holda, smiling, because he loves to give Jordan a hard time about his Bull Heaney stories.
“Years ago, there was an old-timer, they had a fire on Beacon Hill. He walked up, big snow like this” — Jordan gestured to a heap on Mass. Ave. “He took his shovel like a spear” — Jordan cocked his arm back. “Boink!” He released.
“Hit the hydrant and then dug it out. Bull Heaney.”
And with that — about an hour and a half, 20 hydrants, a mile of slushy pavement, and a tale about the legendary Bull Heaney — they were done.