The Humane Society wants people to adopt a pet. Orphanages want you to adopt a kid. Burnsville wants residents to adopt a fire hydrant.

The Burnsville Fire Department hopes to improve fire safety in the city by having people "adopt" one of the city's 4,000 hydrants by pledging to keep it clear of snow this winter.

As the metro area wrestles with an early and deep coating of snow, residents are being called on for help.

"It's a huge issue," said Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott, who estimates that 90 percent of his city's 5,000 hydrants are blocked or covered by snow. "And that's probably a conservative estimate," he said.

That is why almost every fire department has a variation on the adopt-a-hydrant program. St. Paul has one and also assigns firefighters to clear hydrants as part of their duties.

The difficulties that blocked hydrants can cause became painfully clear last week when the largest snowstorm in years bedeviled firefighters in at least two high-profile cases: a house fire in Minneapolis on Sunday that killed two people, and a three-alarm commercial fire in St. Paul.

In Minneapolis, a firetruck got stuck in the snow about a quarter-block from the burning house, and then firefighters had to dig out a hydrant. In St. Paul, firefighters had water problems on Tuesday at a furniture store.

"When we got there, we had difficulty finding the hydrants," said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. "It delayed some of our operations. Because of the snow drifts, we didn't have the water we needed. Would it have made a difference? I don't want to speculate. But it was a big fire."

Although nobody can directly blame a death or major loss on slow access to a fire hydrant, fire officials from Maplewood to Burnsville and Maple Grove to Eagan make it clear that blocked hydrants are a big concern.

That's especially true because most cities of significant size have thousands of hydrants. St. Paul, for instance, has more than 7,000.

"There's no way we could get to all of them and clear them," Scott, of Eagan, said. "There's no way the city could do that. We need people's help."

That is what prompted Burnsville's plea for help earlier this month, a few days before the blizzard blew into town.

Although participation in the various hydrant adoption programs is by all accounts low (no one has yet called Burnsville to register for its program, for example), fire officials hope the message gets out that clearing hydrants is important.

One group that has responded is the Elks Club. In Brooklyn Park, the local chapter has pledged to clear (and keep clear) 100 hydrants. Last Sunday, the group cleared 85 after the storm and hopes to get to the rest Monday.

"We've always asked residents to help us out," said Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn of the Minneapolis Fire Department. "That's why we're asking people to partner with us."

Metal detectors on firetrucks

Fire officials all over the Twin Cities area say, in fact, that something as simple as making sure the flags that mark hydrants are visible can make a difference and save time.

"It's crucial to have those hydrants opened up," said Burnsville Fire Marshal Lee LaTourelle. "If we have to find the hydrant if it is buried and it doesn't have a flag, we hunt and peck. Often we'll have a neighbor at the scene tell us 'it's over there.' We've even used metal detectors to find them."

Almost all fire vehicles carry water so firefighters are able to attack a fire immediately upon arrival. But if the fire spreads, the 500 or so gallons that most trucks carry can disappear very quickly.

"If we are operating at full capacity, [the water] can be gone in 45 seconds," said Burnsville's LaTourelle.

Scott and other fire officials believe the minutes spent finding or clearing hydrants can be crucial on some fire calls.

Zaccard, in St. Paul, agreed that the number of hydrants that end up snow covered is extremely high.

"I know people are weary of shoveling," Zaccard said. "But we are asking them to do a little more and work with us."

Todd Johnson, deputy director for Woodbury's Public Safety Department, said, "We know there are many residents who faithfully dig out their hydrants each winter," and the department "considers them neighborhood heroes."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994