Keith's Car Wash, Westminster's oldest self-service car wash, was extensively damaged about 10:20 a.m. yesterday when a fire erupted in the storage area and spread to the roof of two of the three wash bays.
Melvin R. Keith Sr., who built the facility in the first block of Manchester Ave. 30 years ago, said the fire apparently was caused by a malfunctioning 600,000-BTU water heater.
The blaze was discovered by Julian Jackson, a handyman who was cleaning the open bays for the owner when he saw flames coming from the center storage area.
Mr. Jackson said he ran to the auto repair garage in front of the car wash and told employees there about the fire. They called 911.
"It's times like this you never have a quarter in your pocket to call the Fire Department," Mr. Jackson said.
Firefighters from Westminster, Reese and Pleasant Valley were dispatched to the blaze. Those at the scene called for hazardous materials units because they were told chemicals were stored in the building.
However, the call for the units was canceled when firefighters determined that the chemicals, used for washing vehicles, were not dangerous.
There were no customers in either of the bays when the fire erupted in below-freezing winds. The blaze took about 15 minutes to bring under control.
By the time firefighters left the scene, water from their fire hoses had frozen into long icicles on the brushes inside the car wash.
No one was injured.
The exact cause of the fire was under investigation by the state fire marshal's office yesterday.
Mr. Keith, who was called to the scene when the fire was discovered, said he built the car wash in the early 1960s. He also owns a car wash on John Street.
He builds self-service car washes in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and is the Eastern distributor for car wash equipment.