The Great Chip Fire: Was It Done Right?


December 14, 1992|By MIKE BURNS

Hours after a legion of volunteer firefighters drowned a smoldering giant mulch pile fire in Joppa last month, Richard Godfrey was out surveying the damage on his property.

He walked over the rain-sodden fields, picking up discarded cups and plates from the ponds and roadside, cast off by those who had doggedly fought the smoldering mountain of chips that had burst into a seven-alarm emergency on a windy, drizzly Saturday night.

The 32-hour fight against a 40-foot pile of wood chips engaged more than 200 firefighters from five counties, mobilizing 56 fire trucks and a squad of large Public Works Department bulldozers. The 5 million gallons of water dumped onto the mulch mountain set an unofficial county record for Harford's volunteer fire companies.

The county's emergency operations director, James W. Terrell, praised the professional response. "It worked from start to finish with military precision. They made the right decisions," he said.

Fireside Tom's Forest Products, where the 40,000 cubic yards of chips broke into flames after smoldering since August when lightning struck the pile, was back in business that morning.

Mr. Godfrey leases the land to the mulch sellers, part of his 150-acre spread off of Mountain Road that he has lovingly improved over a dozen years, with spring-fed fish ponds and underground irrigation pipes.

He was disgusted by fire trucks that apparently broke the berm that blocks pollution runoff to a stocked bass pond and by the deep tire track ruts near another pond that threatened to break his buried pipes.

A half-mile away, firemen drove across his lawn to draw water from a pond, instead of parking at the end of a blacktop drive, he said. "Even the coffee wagon couldn't park on the drive, and carry the cups a few yards to the firemen. They drove right over the lawn."

Mr. Godfrey has drawn down the wrath of the Harford volunteer fire companies for publicly complaining about their assault-force response to the fire. "If only they had asked, I could have told them where to drive the trucks without risking this damage," he said. "They asked my neighbor for permission, but they wouldn't ask me."

James Lyons, the assistant chief of Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company, was in charge of the massive motorized "bucket brigade" that fed the fire hoses dumping 1,500 gallons of water a minute on the smoking mounds.

"I knocked on the door of his house, I knocked on all the doors around that place and no one answered," said the 20-year volunteer fire officer. "We knew the fire was on his property and we thought it was in his best interest for us to do the job as best we could."

Mr. Lyons and Mr. Godfrey agree that fire companies have a lawful right to take water from any available source to fight a fire. Property damage is later repaired. And Mr. Godfrey admitted that, fortunately, none of his pipes apparently broke.

Edwin C. Sokel, the Joppa-Magnolia board chairman, indignantly defended the "major assault method" and said that all-volunteer fire companies did not have the luxury of spending days fighting a difficult fire.

Well, let's give the firefighters full credit for extinguishing the nuisance within 32 hours, with volunteer hubris. Unlike the shilly-shally, pusillanimous approach taken in Baltimore County against the infamous "stump dump" fire in Granite that has smoldered for two years, Harford firefighters did the job.

But serious questions still remain about the last-minute, gung-ho way the Joppa fire was handled. The incident also illustrated some notable drawbacks in a countywide volunteer firefighter system.

The fire beneath the tightly compacted mounds of wood chips was known to Fireside Tom's owners since August. They called Joppa-Magnolia fire company, which investigated. The Fire Marshal's office was told weeks before of the problem. A State Police helicopter took photos that showed "hot spots" in the pile two weeks before the seven-alarm emergency. The health department had checked out the smoke plumes for health hazards.

And yet, it was only the decision of Fireside Tom's workers to call 911 that rainy, windy, foggy Saturday night which finally got the fire companies there to fight the 3-month-old blaze. It was bad timing, for which the mulch company deserves a good share of blame.

On the other hand, many public safety agencies knew full well there was an unresolved fire problem at the site for weeks before. It should not have been a sudden emergency, warranting a quick seven alarms. A carefully planned approach by a professional firefighting system would have developed a strategy and attacked the problem while there was still time and opportunity.

If the county had a career firefighter department, instead of volunteers, would it have responded differently? Mr. Sokel's letter to Mr. Godfrey suggests that might have been the case. It's understandable that a lot more volunteer firefighters are available on the weekend than during the work week, but that shouldn't dictate the timetable, and the magnitude, of response.

Part of the problem is lack of a strong central command for Harford County fire fighting activities. Volunteer fire companies act independently, like volunteer militia once did, under a loose structure of cooperation. Mr. Terrell's county office only carries out volunteer fire company decisions, it has no command authority.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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