Firefighters battle burning mulch piles

Volunteers contain blaze at sawmill after 2-hour battle

April 30, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Two mountainous mulch piles caught fire yesterday at a North Carroll sawmill and burned for more than two hours before volunteer firefighters from four counties in two states could contain the blaze, authorities said.

The smoky, smoldering fire was discovered about noon at J. C. Wilhelm Inc., a milling, mulch and sawdust operation in the 3700 block of Maple Grove Road southeast of Manchester, fire officials said.

Fanned by moderate but constant breezes, the fire leaped from one pile to the other, said Donny Nott, deputy chief of Manchester Fire Engine & Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. He estimated the piles were 300 feet long and 100 feet high.

"We were able to keep it from spreading to the other piles -- there's about six here, counting sawdust and mulch -- but it will take several more hours of mopping up, making sure we got all of the hot spots," Nott said.

The sawmill burned about 12 years ago, but Nott could not recall a previous instance involving the huge mulch piles catching fire.

"We don't know the cause yet, and it will be a while before we can try to figure what caused this one," he said.

Mulch piles can generate internal heat and need to be stirred or moved periodically to prevent the heat from building to a point that the mulch begins to smolder, Nott said.

"I'm not saying that is what caused this fire, but we will get together with the owners to see if they have noticed any steam or smoke coming from the piles in recent days."

Initially, getting water to the fire was difficult.

Firefighters were pleading over their radios for more water until a 5-inch hose and two 3-inch lines pumped water from a pond 1,000 feet away.

"When we finally got going, we were hitting it with about 1,000 gallons a minute," Nott said.

A ladder truck from Hampstead was placed adjacent to both mulch piles so firefighters could aim water on top of the mulch.

A front-end loader, which was driven by a sawmill employee, was pressed into service to assist in spreading the piles so firefighters could extinguish the flames and soak the smoldering mulch.

"We had to back the front-end loader out of there at one point when the heat became too intense, but the tires never caught fire," Nott said.

There were no injuries, he said. Attempts to reach the sawmill owner were unsuccessful.

Additional Carroll County units from Hampstead, Lineboro, Pleasant Valley, Westminster, Reese and Gamber assisted Manchester, Nott said.

"We had about 50 firefighters, including some units from Reisterstown, Glyndon and Boring in Baltimore County as well as several Pennsylvania units -- Pleasant Hill, Parkville and Littlestown -- out of York and Adams counties," he said.

Nott declared the fire under control at about 2: 30 p.m.

About 100 dairy cows sunning in a neighboring pasture appeared oblivious as the whining pumps continued sending water across the roadway, past a dozen or more weary firefighters sprawled on the grass and along the winding, mulch-covered driveway to those manning the hoses for mop-up duty.

Pockets of smoke were attacked by the front-end loader and, as the cascading water filtered deep into the mulch piles, resulting steam ascended in wispy puffs.

Nott was uncertain about a damage estimate.

"I'll check with those who know mulch to find out if much was actually lost," he said. "It may be that the burned portion is still usable."

Pub Date: 4/30/99

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