Baltimore County fire officials plan to borrow sophisticated military-issue equipment this week to take aerial photos of the stump dump near Granite as another step toward extinguishing the pesky underground fires burning since Feb. 2.
Fire officials yesterday also termed a weekend fire at the site in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road as suspicious.
Deputy Fire Chief John O'Neill said that a heat-sensitive "imager" on loan to the fire department will be mounted on the county police helicopter Wednesday and flown over the site to take aerial photographs pinpointing the exact location of the underground "hot spots."
The Forward Looking Infrared Imaging System on loan from the AAI Corp. is a camera that can detect underground fires from altitudes of 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet, said Dan Blake, director of AAI's unmanned systems division.
The camera weighs about 20 pounds, is smaller than most portable television sets and was developed for the military, he said.
The model being lent free to the firefighters was designed during the Vietnam era and can be used by the U.S. military to track troop movements and by rescue teams to find lost hikers in national forests, Mr. Blake said.
Chief O'Neill said that with the "thermal pictures," firefighters will then decide whether they can dig up and extinguish the material burning on the 35-acre stump dump and tree farm.
The stump dump has sparked a series of court battles between the property owner, James F. Jett, and the county.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. ordered Mr. ** Jett to shut down the operation Aug. 1, until he clears away the mulch and debris to "virgin soil or ground zero level."
Officials yesterday were confident that the aerial camera would help pinpoint the locations of the larger underground fires, but were unsure how detailed the images would be.
"What we're hoping is they will show where the hottest parts of the fire are," said Thomas Farley, an assistant county attorney who met yesterday with fire officials to discuss the site. "Whether they'll show you where all the fires are, 20 or 30 feet underground, we'll have to see."
Chief O'Neill said yesterday that unless county crews begin to dig up the burning materials, the fire could continue to burn indefinitely.
"It might be two years or it might be three years before it's out," he said. "As long as there's fuel there and pockets of air, it'll burn."
The stump dump also has been the site of at least three smaller fires, including one Saturday night that fire officials termed suspicious.
Chief O'Neill said that samples of charred wood chips from Saturday night's fire will be sent to the FBI for a spectrographic analysis to determine if an accelerant, such as lighter fluid or gasoline, was used.
He said results may not be available for two to three weeks.
Mr. Jett, who lives near the five-acre dump site, was away during the fire and his crews were not at the site, Chief O'Neill said. The last two fires, July 2 and July 7, also occurred around weekends and holidays when there was no on-site monitoring, he said.
"There may be a pattern here and that's what's got us looking harder and more closely," he said.