Tinder-dry conditions in Maryland's woodlands helped to fuel the rapid expansion of two major wildfires yesterday in Harford and Allegany counties.
A fire sparked by weapons tests at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County grew to more than 600 acres, while a blaze near Westernport in Allegany County spread to 350 acres, threatening homes and igniting a natural gas pipeline. One firefighter was hospitalized, and 25 were treated for minor injuries.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about fires in Allegany County and at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County incorrectly attributed a quote. It was Charlie Jones, chief of fire and emergency services at the proving ground, who said, "We're losing control from the ground."
Also, the tanks being tested when the fire broke out were misidentified. They were M-1A2 tanks. The Sun regrets the error.
Despite the size of the Aberdeen fire, which was still burning last night, it did not come close to munitions or hazardous chemicals, said Charlie Jones, chief of fire and emergency services at the proving ground.
The fire started during testing of M-1A1 tanks and ammunition, said James Fasig, technical director for the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center. Wind pushed the flames from a firing range into a wooded area north of Romney Creek.
"We lost all control from the ground," Fasig said.
Firefighters then used a modified tank equipped with a 3,300-gallon reservoir, which can shoot water 190 feet. They also called in three bucket-equipped helicopters that scooped water from the Chesapeake Bay and dumped it on the fire.
Fighting fires at the proving ground is complicated by unexploded ordnance and by swampy terrain, often thick with dry grasses 6 feet tall.
"We will not put firefighters out in fields or woods because it's not safe," Jones said.
In Allegany County, a stiff breeze and steep terrain hampered firefighters as they struggled to contain a 350-acre forest fire that threatened more than 15 rural homes near Westernport, a town of about 2,500 people.
"By the standards of Maryland fires, this is a large fire," said Monte Mitchell, fire supervisor with the Maryland Forest Service. The blaze was said to be 30 percent contained late yesterday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
More than 20 Forest Service firefighters were at the scene, with 75 more from nearly three dozen fire companies from Garrett and Allegany counties, and from Mineral County in West Virginia.
Fire officials said 26 firefighters had suffered smoke inhalation or minor burns since the fire broke out Tuesday afternoon. Three were taken to area hospitals late Tuesday and treated for smoke inhalation. One was admitted in stable condition.
Authorities said a leaking natural gas pipeline was ignited by the flames. No one was injured. The gas was being allowed to burn until the pipeline could be shut down and repaired.
Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Columbia Gas of Maryland, said the leak was in an 8-inch, above-ground steel distribution line that supplies gas to Westernport. The company has had minor leaks in that section before, he said.
"We have crews on the scene," he said.
The town is served by a second gas line, so there would be no interruption in service, Boulware said.
Parts of Route 135, the main road from southwestern Allegany County to Oakland in Garrett County, were closed.
Forestry officials said the fire's spread was accelerated by dry wood and leaves and by dead oak trees killed in recent years by gypsy moths.
This has been one of the driest autumns on record in Maryland. The National Weather Service has recorded less than an inch of rain since Sept. 25 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The September-October period was the driest in 23 years at BWI and the sixth-driest in 131 years of record-keeping in Baltimore.
The dry weather poses a rising fire danger throughout the state, officials said. Forest Service firefighters have responded to 75 fires around the state in the past two weeks. Normally, two weeks in the fall would produce 40 to 50 fires.
"We're strongly urging Marylanders not to do any type of outdoor burning," Mitchell said.
The Westernport fire broke out about 1 p.m. Tuesday in a wooded area a half-mile southeast of Westernport, an old paper-manufacturing town on the Potomac River near the Garrett County line.
What was initially reported as a 10-acre blaze grew Tuesday night and reached 350 acres by yesterday afternoon, moving into the town.
Chief Timothy Dayton of Potomac Fire Company No. 2 in Westernport said 15 or 20 homes and a shopping plaza were threatened by the blaze. But volunteer companies stationed trucks nearby and no buildings caught fire.
"The fire did come within 150 feet of one of the residences," Mitchell said.
Where terrain permits, firefighters have used bulldozers to clear firebreaks. Elsewhere, they were opening breaks by hand, with shovels, rakes and leaf-blowers. Shifting winds of 10 to 15 mph have hampered efforts to block the fire.
"It's been a long two days and a night so far," Dayton said. "The wind's been a major factor, moving to the left, to the right or straight up over the hill."
Amber Clay of the Tri-Towns Volunteer Fire Company said she was on a hose line, protecting a home around sunset Tuesday, when she and another volunteer were felled by smoke. She spoke by telephone yesterday from her bed in the intensive-care unit at Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser, W.Va.
"Apparently when we put out the fire, I inhaled too much smoke," she said. She lost consciousness, suffered minor burns to her face and was carried out.
Clay, 23, of Piedmont, W.Va., was treated with oxygen and held in the hospital overnight. She was expected to be released last night.
"I would like to go back to the fire," she said.