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The Rest of the Story - Do You Know What's In Your Backyard?


Photo courtesy of Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian

On January 16, 2010, Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) responded to a welfare check on SW 52nd Avenue and discovered what was later determined to be a tragic accident.  A 57-year-old SW Portland man had fallen into a 100-year-old, 35' deep cistern while gardening in his backyard.  With the water level 15' below the rim, the man was unable to escape and died.

Firefighter Justin de Ruyter was a first responder on the scene and Portland Fire's Public Information Officer that weekend.  After his experience, de Ruyter developed a new series for Fire Blog readers called "The Rest of the Story".  Through these blogs, Portland Fire will be following up on emergencies it responds to when a specific safety message can be beneficial for the public resulting from an incident.

According to de Ruyter, farmers commonly used cisterns to store water underground and used a windmill or some other type of pump to water crops and livestock.  Over time, cisterns became obsolete and were forgotten when the land was converted to residential or other uses.  Often times, cisterns were simply covered with boards and dirt.  With Portland's aging housing stock, properties have transferred; lawns, gardens, and construction have erased evidence of old cisterns; and the tops of cisterns that were not properly filled may have experienced decades of decay and weathering. 


Photo Examples of Cisterns

While people should not be fearful, it is important to know that old, abandoned cisterns, well pits, and septic cesspools exist in many locations and pose a rare, but serious threat to public safety.  In August 2009, a man was critically injured in Florida after falling 14 feet into an abandoned cistern in the backyard of a historic Key West home; the cistern's concrete lid was being used as a patio.  Accidents such as these may not always be preventable, but there are some steps that property owners can take to educate themselves about their property's history, including:

  • Cisterns often appear as a ring of concrete, tile, bricks, or rocks several feet in diameter.  A depression could indicate a cistern or abandoned septic cesspool that was not properly decommissioned.  If you have concerns about a depression on your property, a licensed plumbing or sewer contractor may be able to help determine whether you may have any of these facilities on your property.
  • County and City building records, some of which are available online at, date back to 1905 and may provide valuable information about your property's development history.  Development permit and records information is also available at the City of Portland's Bureau of Development Services.  Visit them at 1900 SW Fourth Avenue, First Floor or call 503-823-7660.
  • Sanborn Maps were originally created for assessing fire insurance liability in urbanized areas. The maps include detailed information regarding urban geography and building information in U.S. towns and cities from 1867 to 1970 and can be accessed for free through the Multnomah County Library by visiting; select research, databases A-Z and Sanborn Maps.
  • The Oregon Water Resources Department maintains historical data on water wells and regulates the decommissioning of wells.  Some of the data is available online at<>.

Stay tuned to the Fire Blog for future updates on emergency incidents and steps you can take to be informed, prepared and safe.

February 2, 2010


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