As the police helicopter equipped with a thermal video camera glides through the dusky dawn, 1,000 feet from the ground, the on-screen image bounces and wobbles as it records the dark landscape.
Suddenly, the dark television screen explodes like a carnival ride coming to life, with a great patch of white light now painting the screen. It's the infamous Granite stump dump, looking like a small city.
The infra-red images were shot between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Aug. 22, but it wasn't until last Thursday that the Baltimore County Fire Department finally showed the video tape and the enhanced, still photos to the public.
On the photos, white light indicates heat or fire. And the stump dump, from this video view, has plenty of it.
The five-acre heap of old logs, stumps and other debris in Western Baltimore County has been burning since Feb. 2, spreading wood smoke for miles around and irritating residents.
"It does look like a bombing raid hit," said one fire official.
Much of what the thermal imaging reveals has discouraged fire officials, who thought the smoldering fire had been reduced to about a dozen "hot spots." But they also have found cause for encouragement.
Clearly visible on the pictures, for instance, is a dark streak cutting through the stump dump. This is a fire-break trench officials dug early in their efforts to quell the smoky blaze.
Although the trench doesn't reach the bottom of the pile, the photo shows that where logs and debris were cleared in the digging, there is no more fire.
Also, the pictures show an absence of fire near the the north end of the dump, near the Dogwood Road entrance.
That's an area that James F. Jett, the stump dump owner, has bulldozed and cleared since the fire started six monthsago, said Deputy Fire Chief John F. O'Neill.
However, O'Neill cautioned that the cleared areas are only top layers of logs and debris, and that fire officials fear other, deeper layers of stumps could later catch fire.
"We honestly don't know how deep this dump is," said O'Neill.
Jett, who is is under court order not to accept any more stumps, logs or debris, has made efforts to grind into mulch the excess of stumps and logs that piled up even after the fire started.
Mulch from that new material even caught fire Aug. 11, but was quickly extinguished by fire fighters.
O'Neill, a fire prevention specialist, said yesterday that officials now realize the best and only way to put out the fire is to bulldoze the pile and extinguish the logs a bit at a time.
"It told us the operations at the southern end of the site were ineffective," said O'Neill, "that dumping 18,000 gallons of water a day on the fire didn't do anything."
Officials will meet next week with a Maryland National Guard colonel to see if military bulldozers and other equipment could be used to dismantle the stump dump.
If the National Guard can't do the job, the county may be forced to hire a private contractor to do it, and that would be costly.
Two private contractors have already submitted multimillion-dollar bids. One was for $1.7 million, the other $5.6 million.
Whether the county could afford to spend millions to extinguish the fire is unclear, but O'Neill said one thing is: There are few
"We've contacted the best firefighting minds in the country," he said. "We've asked them all, 'Have you ever had a situation like this?' And the answer that keeps coming back is 'No.' The only thing close is the coal mine fires in Pennsylvania. And they just let them burn. Some of them have been burning for 40 years."