A Baltimore County fire official told a county judge yesterday that the season's hot, dry weather, along with the truckloads of debris being shipped to the stump dump burning in western Baltimore County, increases the chance that the fire will spread.
"I believe conditions that I saw on May 23 are a serious fire hazard," said Deputy Fire Chief John F. O'Neill, who toured the site last week. He added that the mounds of new stumps he saw six days ago have "greatly increased the potential for fire, for new fire."
He said stump dump operator James F. Jett's failure to comply with fire safety conditions, set out by county officials in February, puts neighboring woods and farms at greater risk.
Chief O'Neill's comments came during the first day of a hearing before Judge James T. Smith Jr. of the Baltimore County Circuit Court on a county request for a court order to prevent Mr. Jett from accepting more debris.
The stump dump near Granite has been burning since Feb. 2. In the days after the fire, residents from as far away as Essex and the Inner Harbor complained about its smoke. Its odor still permeates many nearby communities.
H. Emslie Parks, county attorney, said the county is seeking the court order because Mr. Jett has failed to comply with a Feb. 25 agreement to limit the stumps he accepts to a number that he can grind and ship out within 72 hours.
On May 23, Mr. Jett had enough stumps to form two 12-foot-high piles., one 35 feet wide and 120 feet long and the other 75 feet wide and 325 feet long, said Chief O'Neill, who heads the fire department's fire safety and prevention bureau.
The piles are about three times what Mr. Jett could grind up and remove within the required 72 hours, he said.
Chief O'Neill yesterday also said the heat and dry weather have increased the risk of the fire spreading, and that the stump fire is burning underground -- making its exact location difficult to pinpoint.
vTC "At any given moment, I don't think anybody can tell you where that fire is," he said.
Judge Smith yesterday questioned why the county ever agreed to permit Mr. Jett to accept new stumps.
Fire Chief Elwood Banister said that he personally "was never in favor" of the agreement.
Chief O'Neill said Mr. Jett had been cooperating with county fire officials in removing debris quickly and in improving safety conditions until May 6, when he began accepting truckloads of ** stumps in increasing numbers.
Under cross-examination, Chief O'Neill acknowledged that it is also hard to tell new debris from old debris -- making it difficult to support county claims that Mr. Jett continues to add new material at the dump.
Mr. Jett's attorney, Michael P. Tanczyn, also pointed out that the March 26 fire citation against Mr. Jett was the first such citation in his 14 years of operation and that his client is getting conflicting signals from the county over how to address safety issues.
Mr. Jett's agreement with the county specifies new debris should be removed as soon as possible, but county attorneys told him in in two meetings in April to get rid of the old debris as soon as possible, Mr. Tanczyn said.
Mr. Jett also was directed to increase the size of his pond, for use as a firefighting tool. But he was then rebuked by county environmental inspectors for disposing of the dredge on a nearby tract, Mr. Tanczyn said.
The hearing, which has attracted a group of stump dump neighbors who have been fighting for years to close the operation, is scheduled to continue today.