Hidalgo County neighborhoods are not required to have fire hydrants because the county cannot enforce residential fire codes due to not meeting a population requirement.

State law mandates at least one million people must live in a county before they can adopt the necessary fire codes. According to the 2010 Census, there is a population of 774,769 people in Hidalgo County.

John Franz, an investigator with the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s office, said the county is limited in what they can do.

“Our hands are pretty much tied,” Franz said, referring to enforcing codes for fire hydrants. “We do what we can. We learn from incidents as far as what we can do better.”

Questions surrounding fire safety in neighborhoods, especially colonias, or lower income households, arose after an 11-year-old girl died in a fire two weeks ago near Palmview.

The area the fire occurred in does not fall in any city limits and is under county jurisdiction. The Alton Fire Department is responsible for answering to fire emergency calls in that area. Alton FD held a news conference last week to address concerns over their response to the fire that killed Versaidy Hernandez.

In a separate interview, Alton Fire Chief Javier Garcia said that while his department is fully equipped with the necessary resources to adequately respond to emergencies, fire hydrants in neighborhoods do make a difference.

“There’s a continuous water supply… [that’s] available right there and then,” Garcia said.

The county can enforce fire codes for commercial buildings. Leo Najera, an inspector in the Hidalgo County Planning Department, explained that when plans for new buildings are submitted, there are two different categories it can fall under: commercial or residential.

For commercial buildings, multiple departments review the plans, including planning, health and the fire marshal’s office, which checks for compliance with the International Fire Code.

However with residential buildings, only the planning department reviews it. Najera said they check to make sure the plans follow subdivision restrictions.

As of 2018, new land developments, like subdivisions, are required to install fire hydrants.

“You can’t build a new house without there being fire hydrants at least 600 feet away from the structure,” Franz said.

However, that code does apply to any subdivisions built before 2018. Franz suggested that citizens could band together to install a fire hydrant themselves.

“If there’s a colonia that doesn’t have fire hydrants and residents want them, they can talk to their developer or they can talk to a water supply company and petition them, but they might get charged,” Franz said.

Garcia said fire hydrants would help his department.

“I hope we get more hydrants,” Garcia said. “I think it will make our job easier as far as responding faster.”

Previous coverage

Alton fire officials respond to criticism after fatal blaze

Family mourns death of 11-year-old girl as fire investigation continues

One dead in fire near Palmview, at least one in hospital