After a week of spraying a special foam on the Granite stump dump fire, Baltimore County fire officials decided it would not work and that the huge piles of stumps should be allowed to "free burn" over the next several weeks.
County Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson said firefighters stopped spraying the foam after he and other county officials made the decision yesterday. The crews of about 25 firefighters that were on hand to spray the foam will disperse to their stations, he said, and a few firefighters will monitor the fire around the clock.
Nelson couldn't estimate how long the smoking piles would burn. "That particular process can take several weeks, many weeks," he said.
The fire started Feb. 2 at the Patapsco Valley Tree Farm, owned by Christmas tree farmer James Jett. The 220-acre site in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road includes a dump for tree stumps and other debris from construction sites.
Nelson said the fire was contained to about four acres.
After fighting the fire with water and earth-moving equipment, the fire department hired Team Kodiak Foam Fire Control, a Missouri company that uses a foam similar to dishwashing liquid fight unusual fires around the country.
Despite the decision to discontinue the foam treatment, the county must pay Team Kodiak as much as $25,000 for the week of work, Nelson said.
The foam was supposed to seep deeper and more thoroughly than water to reach fires at the bottom of stumps piled 75 feet or higher.
"It's not that it wasn't effective to a certain point," Nelson said of the foam, "it wasn't effective enough."
Firefighters began to realize that last Friday, he said, when they used earth-moving equipment to dig into a section of the dump that had been doused for days with the foam. They found "substantial penetration" by the foam to about 12 feet, Nelson said, not nearly what was needed to reach fires burning as deep as 100 feet.
Freezing temperatures halted the spraying over the weekend. Warmer weather allowed spraying to resume Monday. Nelson said firefighters noticed this week that sections of the dump previously quenched by the foam were burning anew after the weekend hiatus.
Nelson said county and state environmental officials assured him that allowing the dump to "free burn" posed no health hazard. Residents in Granite and beyond would continue to smell smoke, he said, but added that a free-burning fire would smoke less than one that is being smothered with foam or water.
The Greater Patapsco Community Association has objected for years to the dump and warned of its potential hazards.
Tom DeMay, association president, lamented the news of the foam's fizzle. Residents already have endured days and nights of smelling smoke, he said. "With a pile that size, we know it's going to be quite a while before it's out."
Jett, the dump owner, has been awaiting a decision on a permit to allow his business to continue under a law the county enacted in October 1989 to regulate places such as his. His operation was allowed to continue during the application process. But since the fire, officials have said that Jett cannot resume his business without first complying with a series of fire safety recommendations.