Former Baltimore County Fire Chief Austin Deitz and his wife, Joanne, said they awoke about 2 a.m. Saturday to see flames leaping as high as 100 feet off huge mounds of tree stumps, wood and earth just across Brice Run from their western Baltimore County house.
By today, the fire had subsided to a persistent pall of white smoke, but it had grown in the minds of many neighbors as another black mark against a controversial tree stump dump in Granite owned by Christmas tree farmer James Jett.
The smoke was reported today as far as Towson and downtown Baltimore, 15 miles away, although skies were clear around the fire site.
Arson is suspected as the cause of the stubborn fire, county Fire Department Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson said. Investigators have found witnesses who claim they saw someone on the portion of the property where the fire erupted, Nelson said.
Firefighters early today completed a huge trench between the one-acre burning portion of the dump and the rest, and continued to pour water on the edges of the burning area to prevent the fire from spreading.
The smoking wood will be allowed to burn itself out and that may take weeks, Nelson said. There is plenty of water available, but Nelson said the volume of water needed to penetrate the burning heap would threaten Brice Run as it ran off, "creating another environmental problem."
Nelson said the fire is deep in the multiple layers of stumps, parts of it piled 100 feet high. Officials are considering the use of booms and the construction of a sediment pond to protect the stream.
Jett declined to speak about the problem.
His 220-acre Patapsco Valley Farms Inc., in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road, has been the subject of a bitter community dispute for about four years.
Jett is awaiting a county government decision on a permit to allow him to continue operating.
The county enacted a new law in October 1989 specifically designed to regulate places such as his. A hearing took place last November, but county officials said no decision has been made.
Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Balto. Co., who represents the rural western area of the county, said he asked County Executive Roger B. Hayden yesterday to deny Jett's permit. Hayden was in Virginia at a family funeral and unavailable for comment.
The bitterness has centered mainly on the scores of heavy trucks that bring the loads of tree stumps and debris from new construction sites to rural Dogwood Road.
It extended to the point that the Greater Patapsco Community Association in 1989 asked for a grand jury investigation of Jett's ability to defeat several legal challenges by county and state government since 1985. A year ago, Jett was given probation before judgment and fined $150 after Kathleen Skullney, a former association president, charged in District Court that Jett rammed her van with his vehicle as she drove past him at the entrance to his property.
Robert and Betty Meekins, of the 9000 block of Dogwood Road, claimed yesterday that the piles of stumps have been smoldering for months. They speculated that spontaneous combustion may have started the fire.
"You've got to be a stupid person to set a fire like that," said Rosalyn Roddy, of the 3000 block of Hearnwood Road, another Jett opponent, after hearing that arson was suspected. Roddy said she had cited the danger of fire during the November permit hearing, recalling a similar week-long blaze in a Howard County stump dump in 1989.
Lori Koogle, 27, of the 9900 block of Davis Ave., speculated that the fire could help Jett in the long run by making more room on the land for dumping.
Kent Bough, operator of a dog kennel just across Dogwood Road from the Jett land, took a much more philosophical view.
"It's unfortunate," he said laconically, while sitting in the warm sunshine with several of his dogs. He said he hasn't been affected by the smoke and thought the smoke of which some of his neighbors spoke was just steam from the piles of wood and mulch.