Although the clouds of smoke and ash that darken their big yellow tractors sometimes blind their eyes, Lucretia D. McNair-Bey and her fellow union apprentices say they're not afraid to work at the site of the Granite stump dump fire.
"Dust is no better," Ms. McNair-Bey, 37, said matter-of-factly, peeling an onion for her hamburger lunch yesterday. "This is what I thought I'd be doing."
Ms. McNair-Bey is one of several apprentices learning to drive heavy construction equipment for Local 37 Operators and Engineers. The union group is supplying the workers who have spent the last 65 days toiling at the dump site at Patapsco Valley Farms.
When conditions on the unstable slopes of earth and grass get too dangerous, union school instructors Doug Dufour and Stuart Simms take over.
"You get disoriented," Mr. Dufour said of the often-smoky conditions. "You can't see."
Yesterday, Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden and other local and state officials toured the five-acre site.
Most of the dump looked like a grassy meadow, although streams of smoke leaked from a dozen places where the fire still smoldered.
James F. Jett, who owns the dump in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road, is due back in Circuit Court next week. He is trying to have lifted a court injunction that prevents him from operating his mulching business. At a Nov. 2 hearing, he aroused Judge James T. Smith Jr.'s anger after fire officials said he had violated court orders by moving mulch and firewood on and off the site.
The day after the hearing, Mr. Jett and Carlos Ghigliotti, president of Infrared Technologies, got into a fistfight at the dump. Mr. Ghigliotti's firm was hired to take heat-sensitive photographs of the dump. In court papers, each man accuses the other of starting the fight, which grew out of Mr. Jett's interception of Mr. Ghigliotti's reports to Maryland Environmental Service. The quasi-state agency was hired to bury the fire.
According to court papers, Mr. Ghigliotti went to the site on Oct. 31 and tried to deliver the reports to MES Director George Perdikakis. Instead, his car got stuck in the mud and he ran into Mr. Jett, who told him his name was "Jim Davis." Court papers also say Mr. Jett claimed to be a security guard and said he would give the reports to the proper officials.
Two days later, Mr. Jett took the reports into court to show Judge Smith that the surface temperatures at the dump had dropped to 80 degrees or less, safe enough for his business. The fistfight occurred the next day.
Yesterday, Mr. Perdikakis said nearly 80,000 cubic yards of earth -- 4,700 truckloads -- have been dumped and packed on the thousands of stumps that have burned since Feb. 2, 1991. For the past month, the heavy machines have been working on the last smoky hillside at the back of the site, in the section nearest Wright's Mill Road.
MES's technique involves pushing away huge stumps burning at the surface, then bulldozing what's left into a smooth layer. Dirt is applied in 1-foot-deep layers, and vibrating packing machines compress it as tightly as possible. Up to eight layers of earth are packed on the hottest spots, then covered by topsoil, and seeded.
The oldest part of the site, once a mountainous 100-foot-high pile of steaming, burning logs and stumps, now looks like a hilly, grass-covered piece of land. However, warned Mr. Perdikakis, the fire is still burning underneath and will have to be watched for months.
The last truckload of earth is to be applied and packed down later this month.