Stumped by debris, firefighters expect long weeks of smoky battle at tree farm

February 06, 1991|By Dennis O'Brienand Deborah I. Greene | Dennis O'Brienand Deborah I. Greene,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

A makeshift sign at the command post for those battling a stump fire at the Patapsco Valley Tree Farm that has spewed smoke over the metropolitan area suggests that firefighters know they have a war on their hands.

It reads: "Operation Desert Stump . . . Allied Headquarters."

Baltimore County fire officials said putting out the fire in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road in the Hollofield area near Interstate 70 might take another month because it is smoldering beneath 40 )) feet of tree stumps, logs and dirt.

The fire was termed suspicious, with some people reporting that they had seen trespassers on the property and others complaining that the pile had smoldered for months.

Deputy Fire Chief J. Edward Crooks, who commanded almost four dozen firefighters and equipment stationed at the site yesterday, said the fire was particularly difficult to extinguish because a small mountain of stumps was in the way.

"This is a deep-seated fire," he said. "With this fire, we have to dig up stumps as big as compact cars and logs that are 25 feet and longer."

Rains expected today won't help because the fire is burning so deeply in the pile of wood and debris, which is 75 feet tall at its highest point, as wide as a football field and three times as long.

Construction crews spent yesterday digging a trench across the midsection of the dump to separate the mound that is smoldering from a lower level of rubble that has not yet caught fire.

The crews, hired by farm owner James F. Jett, had bulldozed three-fourths of the way across the trench when they ran up against a wall of heat and smoke and had to work around it to get ahead of the fire.

Since the weekend, the stump fire has prompted people throughout the Baltimore area to wonder about the source of the smoke that enveloped their neighborhoods, highways, shops and offices.

Unusual weather conditions helped spread the thick smoke for miles, frightening some who thought their homes were on fire, fouling the air as far away as Rosedale, Key Highway and the Inner Harbor and turning the Baltimore skyline a hazy gray.

"I went downstairs to get some clothes for work this morning, I smelled smoke, and I thought my house was on fire," John Andrews of Woodlawn said yesterday. He spent a half-hour searching the basement of his town house for the source of the blaze before a neighbor told him the smoke was coming from the farm.

John Goheen, who works in the state's Air Quality Management Administration, said warm temperatures of the past few days had formed a lid over colder air near the surface, preventing the smoke from dissipating.

Donald Outen, acting director of Baltimore County's Department Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said the county enacted legislation in October 1989 so it could regulate operations such as Mr. Jett's stump dump.

The law requires such operations to obtain permits and meet requirements designed to minimize their effects on ground water and the surrounding environment, he said.

Mr. Jett, who has been dumping stumps on his property for almost a decade, has applied for a permit, but his application is still being reviewed. His operation has been a source of concern among neighbors, who have complained often about traffic, noise and environmental problems.

County records show that Mr. Jett was fined $2,000 and ordered to complete a year of unsupervised probation in September 1988 after he agreed to plead guilty to violating zoning regulations that prohibited him from importing firewood to sell at the 60-acre site.

But Mr. Jett's lawyer, Michael P. Tanczyn, said judges on three separate occasions had found that his client was operating within the law at the tree farm.

"He's not breaking any laws in what he's doing and has held himself in compliance with any and all laws," he said.

At the fire scene yesterday, four firefighters with 35-pound air tanks on their backs were sent in with hoses that snaked more than a mile from the fire to a nearby stream that has been dammed to supply water.

Capt. Mark E. Matterson said fighting the blaze was a lot likbeing in a war.

"It's hurry up and wait. You fight for a while, wait, then fighagain," he said.

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