The same technology U.S. soldiers used to locate guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Vietnam may help Baltimore County fire officials pinpoint "hot spots" at the huge burning stump dump in Granite.
A new fire at the James F. Jett stump dump over the weekend has prompted county officials to employ thermal-imaging equipment, Deputy Chief John F. O'Neill said.
"It's mainly used to locate hostile forces in dense forest or camouflaged areas," he said.
Officials are hoping that the equipment, mounted on the county police helicopter or plane, can show firefighters exactly where to direct their efforts against the stubborn, 6-month-old stump fire.
"I'm hoping it will show me exactly where to direct our efforts," O'Neill said.
AAI Corp., a defense contractor from Cockeysville, volunteered to lend the thermal equipment, plus an engineer to operate it, O'Neill said.
Meanwhile, arson investigators, who called Saturday's fire at the dump "suspicious," continue to search for the exact cause of the fire that raged for four hours.
Saturday's fire was restricted to a pile of mulched stumps, O'Neill said. It was not part of the larger and older stump dump, which continues to smolder and smoke. The fire at times has sent smoke and odor for miles into other parts of Baltimore County and the city.
Jett, who also operates a Christmas tree farm at the 126-acre site, is under a Circuit Court order to mulch and remove almost half of the original stump dump.
Jett's mulching of the logs, stumps and tree branches has created a pile of wood chips 50 feet wide, 230 feet long and 15 feet high, O'Neill said. It was this pile that caught fire Saturday.
"A lot of things just don't add up," O'Neill said, in explaining why arson is suspected.
First, a fire crew was at the stump dump Saturday and when it left at 5:30 p.m., the mulch pile was not smoldering or on fire, O'Neill said.
It is probably unlikely that it spontaneously combusted, he continued, because rain had fallen the night before. Equally unlikely is that a lightning strike sparked the fire, because there was no thunderstorm Saturday night, O'Neill said.
"When our crews left there Saturday, there was nothing," he said. "Then, within three hours, we have the whole south end of the [mulch] pile on fire."
Arson investigators have taken sample wood chips from the mulch pile and sent them to the FBI for sophisticated analysis to determine if gasoline or some other flammable liquid may have been used.
The stump dump itself is a sprawling, thick tangle of tree stumps, limbs and branches gathered together over the 12 years Jett has been accepting truckloads of the stuff.
Jett, through his attorney, has said several times that he provides a valuable service by landfilling and mulching the tree stumps, logs and branches, which mostly come from new housing sites. Baltimore County does not accept such debris at its landfill.
But residents of Granite have long complained of the dust and heavy truck traffic going in and out of the Jett operation.