Foam's failure means stump fire may burn a year

February 20, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Firefighters decided yesterday to let the mountain of stumps near Granite burn freely for now -- acknowledging that the foam brought in by a Missouri fire expert wasn't doing any good and that it may be a year before the fire is out.

Battalion Chief Tom Bowling of the Baltimore County Fire Department said the foam sprayed for the past week on burning debris at the Patapsco Valley Tree Farm was shut off shortly after 4 p.m. yesterday because it wasn't working.

The fire, which has filled surrounding communities with smoke for more than two weeks, could burn another year, Chief Bowling said.

The department's next step will be decided at a meeting today of firefighters and county officials, he said.

"It's a very deep-seated fire," he said. "With the foam, we weren't really getting down to where the fire is burning, so the foam just wasn't doing us any good."

The fire, which has burned since Feb. 2 at the tree farm owned by James F. Jett, has sent smoke billowing across much of the Baltimore area and has cost the county at least $50,000 for the foam and for the rental of heavy equipment needed to move mounds of burning debris.

Richard McCann, the fire expert from Nixa, Mo., who was hired Feb. 9 to apply the foam, said he will remain at the scene in case firefighters decide to use the foam again. The foam was developed by the Monsanto Co. to fight fires by penetrating the surface of a burning material.

County officials said they have yet to decide how much Mr. McCann will be paid for his efforts but estimated it will be $25,000 to $30,000.

Chief Bowling and Mr. McCann said firefighters face two major obstacles in battling the blaze -- its size and its depth.

In some places, the fire is burning about 100 feet below the surface -- making it impossible to reach with the foam. It is fueled by oxygen vented through holes in the debris.

Firefighters had hoped to plug the holes with foam, but those efforts proved futile yesterday.

And the fire has grown. When Mr. McCann arrived to survey the site Feb. 9, the fire was limited to a small portion at the rear of the site. But he said that by the time he arrived with his truck and 450 gallons of the concentrated foam three days later, the fire covered most of the 5-acre landfill.

"The winds, the weather and the depth of the fire all combined so that it was spreading all the time," Mr. McCann said.

Thomas DeMay, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said he was not surprised that extinguishing the fire may take a year. He has been discussing the blaze with county fire officials since it started and is familiar with the size of the burning mountain.

But he said many of his neighbors will be disappointed that the foam didn't work.

"Unfortunately, we spent all this money to bring this guy in and now it looks like it didn't help," he said.

He said much of the predominantly rural community in western Baltimore County is populated by retired people who spend most of their day at home, so the smoke has been a serious problem for them.

"Luckily, it's not in the middle of August, when people would have to have their windows open. But it makes you concerned about what things will be like when the warm weather comes," he said.

Fire officials said a decision on whether to use the foam again could be reached today after they confer with County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

Fire officials may decide to attack the fire with bulldozers and other heavy equipment, pushing surface debris out of the way so that firefighters can attack underground areas that are burning, Chief Bowling said. "That's the real tricky part of a landfill fire, getting down to it," he said.

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