Stump fire tamed? Officials watch, hope Owner is seeking to resume activity

November 04, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Like a wary St. George seeking to slay the fire-breathing dragon, Baltimore County and state officials are probing, watching and waiting to see if the stump dump fire they've quieted will burst through its new earthen blanket, or just slowly die.

During a court hearing on the stubborn fire Monday, county fire officials and George Perdikakis, whose Maryland Environmental Service has been burying the fire, made it clear that, while progress has been made, the outcome remains uncertain.

"I do believe we still have quite a bit of fire under there," Deputy Fire Chief John F. O'Neill testified Monday. He would not say when the fire would be out.

"This is not an exact science," he told Judge James T. Smith Jr.

The hearing was held on behalf of James Jett, who owns the 215-acre Patapsco Valley Tree Farm in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road. Mr. Jett wants to lift a court injunction barring him from collecting stumps and grinding them into mulch.

He claims that the county has done such a good job burying the fire that the site is safe enough for him to resume some operations.

The judge continued the hearing until Nov. 18. The county Fire Department has a field office at the site in Granite, and is monitoring the dump to make sure Mr. Jett complies with the court order.

The huge pile of tree stumps, once 100 feet high, caught fire Feb. 2, 1991, and spread smoke for miles. It could not be isolated or extinguished, even though foam and thousands of gallons of water were used. The county let it burn much of its built-in fuel supply, before contracting with Maryland Environmental Services. The company is now burying the fire.

Most of the land, which once looked like an imitation of burning hell, now looks more like a grassy golf course, said Mr. Jett.

Mr. Perdikakis said 75 percent of the area once on fire has been packed with 5 to 6 feet of dirt. Only 15 percent to 20 percent remains open to the air, said Mr. Perdikakis, who promised to finish the job by Thanksgiving.

Several witnesses at Monday's hearing recalled incidents when "chimney holes," hot with the smoke of escaping fire exhaust, developed in the newly packed earth. One such hole, discovered Oct. 20, was about 3 feet in diameter, said Battalion Chief George M. Folio. That hole was filled with water and then a truckload of dirt.

Recent thermal-heat image photographs of the dump revealed temperatures no higher than 80 degrees, a dramatic improvement from earlier readings of 500-plus degrees, said Mr. Perdikakis.

Still, he wants to find a better way to measure temperatures deep inside the stump pile. So far, the deepest reading has been 4 feet beneath the surface. One reading registered 212 degrees, the maximum capacity of the aluminum thermometer. Another reading, 2 feet inside the pile, registered 113 degrees.

Deputy Chief O'Neill and Mr. Perdikakis also said they will keep watching the fire and will be ready to combat the fire's attempts to open new breathing holes.

The fire and the resulting court cases are the latest chapter in an eight-year battle by residents who want to stop Mr. Jett's operation. Residents say Mr. Jett has piled up dangerous amounts of stumps and that their roads have been ruined by heavy truck traffic.

Until the fire, Mr. Jett resisted county and state efforts to regulate his operation. Now he is closed down and under court order, at least until the fire is out.

The county also has passed a law regulating stump dumps, forcing Mr. Jett to seek an operating permit. In July, a state law went into effect requiring permits for wood recycling operations. Mr. Jett must apply for the state permit if he ever hopes to reopen.

Last month, the county filed a $9 million damage suit against Mr. Jett, claiming environmental damage and negligence. The county has set aside $1.6 million to bury the fire, of which $478,000 has been spent.

After Monday's hearing, Mr. Jett and his attorney refused to comment, though Mr. Jett testified he believes arsonists started the fire.

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