Blazes at rural homes far from water supply alarm firefighters

April 02, 1995|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

When firefighters arrived at a fire on Lynch Lane in rural northern Baltimore County last month, they found a house in flames at the end of a long, narrow road. The nearest source of water was three-quarters of a mile away at Little Gunpowder Falls.

Unable to get a full-sized engine down the bank to the stream, firefighters sank hoses of three small trucks into the stream and pumped water uphill 400 feet to an engine on Baldwin Mill Road, which pumped it through more hoses and engines in a 4,000-foot lifeline to the house.

It took firefighters and equipment from eight different companies in Baltimore and Harford counties a half-hour to get their water relay working and nearly three hours to put out the fire. Meanwhile, the ranch house -- only 1 1/2 years old -- burned to the ground.

It's a scene firefighters fear will occur more frequently as development in the rural areas of Harford, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties grows.

With homes as well as businesses and industry being built in the countryside long before public water service is available, the need to tap Maryland's streams, ponds and rivers to fight fires increases.

Finding water is not difficult; firefighters keep a book detailing locations. But getting to the water to pump it into the tank of a firetruck can be troublesome. The bank of a river may be steep. Or covered in snow or ice. Or too muddy to support a vehicle.

"The quicker you can set up a water source, the better off you are," said John Simpson, chief of Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Co. in northwestern Harford County.

"If you can save 20 minutes, that's significant. Twenty minutes in a house fire is the difference between saving the place and it burning down."

And the faster insurance companies believe water will get to a fire, the less they'll charge for insurance.

But in the counties surrounding Baltimore, only Anne Arundel has a law requiring developers of new single-family homes to guarantee a nearby water supply for firefighting. There, whenever rural land is subdivided for residential construction, one or more 5,000-gallon underground water tanks must be installed so that every structure in the subdivision is within 2,000 feet "by accessible roadway" of a tank.

Anne Arundel's law has been on the books since 1978, said Robert Dvorak, the county's chief administrative officer and a former fire administrator there.

Other counties have been less successful.

"We highly recommend it, but we don't have any requirements" for residential construction in areas without public water, said Ken Byerly, a lieutenant in the Howard County Fire Prevention Bureau.

He sits on the county's Subdivision Review Committee and can recommend that builders provide access to a nearby pond or stream when their site plans come up for review, "but we can't require it," he said.

"We don't have a big problem out here, though," he said, because "public water is moving west. Still, some houses in Howard are larger than our apartment complexes, and they need quite a bit of water supply."

Carroll restrictions tightened

Restrictions on rural development in Carroll were tightened in 1990. A resolution now requires that an adequate water supply ** for firefighting be available within 600 feet of any new commercial, industrial or multi-family residential development where public water does not exist.

Builders may install an underground water tank, install an access pipe at a nearby pond or stream or build a road to the nearest body of water to meet that requirement.

The ordinance, however, does not apply to construction of single-family homes.

Nor are there restrictions in the northern reaches of Harford or Baltimore counties, where clusters of homes worth a half-million dollars each dot the landscape in once-rural areas such as Jarrettsville, Jacksonville, Butler and Hereford.

It's not just the number of homes, says Claud Gamble, chief of the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Co., it's also the size of homes being built today, some of which have "five times the number of rooms" of homes a generation ago.

"That means the gallons-per-minute flow [of water] has to increase. Any time you add something to a structure -- including size -- you add hazards," said Mr. Gamble, who also is chairman of the Water Resource Committee created by county volunteers to study rural water availability.

Harford looks to bridge gap

In Harford, an effort is under way to make it easier for the county's rural fire companies to tap into natural water sources. County Councilman Barry Glassman, a volunteer with the Level Volunteer Fire Co. in the northeastern area of the county, has introduced a bill that would require standpipes when new bridges are built or old ones are repaired.

Working much like a city fire hydrant, but not under pressure, the standpipe would allow easy and quick hose hookup to a fire engine stopped on the bridge -- possibly trimming as much as 20 minutes or more off the time it takes to get water to some fires.

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