The first engine to arrive at a fire that destroyed a mobile home near the Sheppard Lane bridge in rural Howard County on Jan. 6 was from a Columbia fire station about six miles away.
The second was from a Clarksville station less than two miles away. It could have arrived three to four minutes sooner had it crossed the Sheppard Lane bridge.
Instead, because of weight restrictions on the bridge, it was forced to take a detour that added about four miles.
Sheppard Lane is one of 18 county-maintained bridges with weight restrictions. Although it is the most extreme case -- no vehicle weighing more than 3 tons may cross -- five others have restrictions that require some fire trucks to detour en route to a fire.
An additional three allow fire trucks to cross, but they have to return by a different route.
The bridges are safe for vehicular traffic, according to state inspection records -- despite the weight restrictions, which engineers say are conservative.
But that doesn't necessarily mean they can be crossed by fire trucks, which typically weigh from 15 to 35 tons.
Even a few minutes' delay in responding to a fire could be life-threatening, said Chief James E. Heller, director of the county fire service.
There was no loss of human life in the Sheppard Lane fire, although two cats and a rabbit perished in the $40,000 blaze. It is "a matter of speculation" whether three or four extra minutes would have saved the home, Chief Heller said.
Even so, the incident is considered a chilling close call -- and an illustration of why Chief Heller believes that the county should rebuild or upgrade those bridges restricted for fire vehicles.
Howard County has 274 bridges, 117 of them maintained by the county and 157 by the state. When bridges begin to decay, they are given weight restrictions by officials. Bridges are deemed safe as long as the weight restrictions are not routinely ignored.
State inspectors examine all bridges in the county every two years, said Earle S. Freedman, chief of bridge development for the State Highway Administration. He said that those inspections all are up-to-date and that all of the county's bridges are safe.
But some bridges, in the view of certain county officials, need to be replaced. And that's costly.
Howard officials have estimated they will need to spend $14 million in county capital funds over the next six years on bridges. But the projected local spending could be overtaken by the county's budget problems.
A group of financial advisers recommended last week that the county not borrow any more money for capital projects without ** increasing taxes or fees. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has said money will not be cut from capital projects in the fiscal year ending June 30 -- but he will not speculate beyond that.
In addition to county capital funds, the county has been allotted $5.1 million from the federal government for bridge repair and replacement. But that money must be used by Oct. 1, 1997.
It is unclear whether the county will spend the federal funds. To do so, it would have to put up about $1 million of its own to match the federal grant -- something it may not be willing to do.
And because the county bridges are safe for most vehicles, residents usually don't complain about their condition.
The Sheppard Lane bridge, for example, has been languishing in the county's capital budget for 18 years, even though it qualifies for federally funded replacement. The county has set aside $1.2 million to replace the one-lane bridge, but is negotiating with a Sheppard Lane landowner about acquiring rights of way.
Work on the nearby Homewood Road bridge -- which is also among the candidates for replacement -- cannot start until a new Sheppard Lane is built, because Sheppard Lane would be the detour route while the Homewood Road bridge was rebuilt.
Many Sheppard Lane residents have opposed rebuilding the one-lane bridge because they fear a new bridge would bring dump trucks to a stump dump on Sheppard Lane.
But Republican Charles C. Feaga, who represents western Howard County on the Howard County Council, believes that the problem has grown so severe that the county must condemn property for a new bridge if the county and the landowner don't agree to terms soon.
"I vote against condemning all the time," Mr. Feaga said, "but this is a matter of public safety. We have to take action."
Mr. Feaga said that he has climbed beneath the bridge and that it is not safe for heavy equipment. "It is very sandy where the
cement used to be, and I can see rocks," he said.
Yet Mr. Feaga said he would have crossed the bridge with fire equipment in responding to the recent blaze, as did two $H Clarksville volunteer companies. According to Fire Department records, the call involving the Sheppard Lane fire came in at 8:13 a.m. The 911 tape recorded a woman shouting, "Get out! Get out! Get out!"