- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Dogs aren’t the only ones casting a longing eye at fire hydrants these days.

Fire officials in Prince William County and across the country are reporting that thieves are twisting the brass nuts off the tops of hydrants, then selling them for scrap, raising concerns that the hydrants won’t work when needed most.

Prince William officials recently found nearly four dozen hydrants had been stripped of their brass nuts, rendering them inoperable.

“This is an extremely high-priority concern because of the potential devastation it can cause,” said Assistant Fire Chief C. Hadden Culp, who has never seen such a problem. “We’re not used to pulling up to a hydrant and it not working.”

Earlier this month, Prince William police charged Douglas D. Mumaw, of Strasburg, with larceny and obtaining money by false pretense in connection with the thefts. Authorities are asking the public to be vigilant and report suspicious activity or tampering with hydrants.

Chief Culp said vandalized hydrants have so far not caused a delay in fighting a fire.

However, firefighters responding this spring to a house fire in Hesperia, Calif., found the five closest hydrants were useless because thieves had taken the nuts.

They called in special equipment, but by the time they got the fire under control, the house was a total loss.

“It definitely delayed us. It’s become a real problem,” said Tracey Martinez, spokeswoman for the San Bernadino County Fire Department, whose firefighters now carry spare parts to access hydrants that have been tampered with, though using them can cost valuable time.

Brass parts are fetching higher prices at scrap recyclers, though a single hydrant nut is unlikely to be worth more than $10 even in the current inflated market.

Fire hydrants aren’t the only target. Thieves have stolen brass ornaments from graves in Chicago and West Virginia, chrome-plated brass piping from men’s bathrooms at fast-food restaurants in Pennsylvania, and brass plaques from churches in Houston.

Firefighters in Columbia, S.C., also have reported stolen hydrant parts.

John Chalk, sales manager at Kennedy Valve in Elmira, N.Y., one of the largest hydrant manufacturers, said nearly all hydrants have brass nuts that could appeal to thieves.

Prices have doubled in the last six months and are about five times as high as in 2003, said Bruce Savage, spokesman for the District-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Mark Zwilsky, owner of Potomac Metals Inc., said prices have been high in roughly the past year, but still a five-pound brass hydrant nut would be worth only about $7.

Mr. Zwilsky said he’s not surprised that people are stealing hydrant parts. His company has installed cameras and video equipment to help police track customers who try to sell stolen scrap.

“People are always looking for a way to make a buck,” Mr. Zwilsky said.

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