One brush fire out

second flares

New blaze called out of control in Allegany County

November 09, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

WESTERNPORT - As firefighters mopped up the remains of a wind-driven brush fire that scorched the steep slopes southeast of this Western Maryland hamlet for two days, another broke out yesterday about 25 miles away, near Corriganville.

The second blaze - like the first stoked by dry leaves and grasses that have received little more than a sprinkling of rain in the past month - was burning out of control over 55 acres of steeply wooded terrain, said Dick Devore, the acting emergency management director for Allegany County.

Many of the Maryland and West Virginia firefighters who battled the Westernport blaze Tuesday and Wednesday were thrown into the fray against the latest fire, along with crews from Bedford and Somerset County, Pa. The fire started around 3 p.m., about two miles from the Pennsylvania line, Devore said.

Shortly before sunset, huge billows of smoke from the Corriganville fire could be seen from a hill outside Frostburg. Devore said firefighters were rushing to dig fire lines to contain the fire before the passage of a cold front carrying 35-mph winds, which was expected about midnight.

They struggled because of the steep slopes of Little Allegheny Mountain and the lack of roads.

"It's very steep terrain, and there are only a few logging trails in there, so they're using bulldozers to clear the way to get equipment to the fire," Devore said.

Lack of rain has left the forests that blanket much of Western Maryland prone to fire. Allegany County has received 2.37 inches of rain since Sept. 1, more than 4 inches less than average for the period. Two-thirds of an inch of precipitation has fallen in the nearly six weeks since Oct. 1, according to the National Weather Service.

The fire near Westernport charred 350 to 400 acres, threatened businesses and a school, and came within sparking distance of about 20 homes.

Residents, used to adversity, shrugged.

"You grow up around here, you get accustomed to the idea of forest fires and floods," said Tim Dayton, chief of the Potomac Volunteer Company in Westernport. "We felt comfortable with it."

Stores at Tri-Towns Plaza, a strip mall south of town, closed early Wednesday as flames consumed the tinder on the hill behind them. But the residents of River Road, which parallels the North Branch of the Potomac, stayed put.

"I was ready to leave," said Kathy Ashenfelter, who has lived in a green frame house on a hill above the river for more than 20 years. "But they said there was no danger, that they had it under control, so I stayed."

Ashenfelter said she slept in a chair in her living room most of Wednesday night. "This morning it started up again out here, and I called the fire department," she said.

As she spoke, a crew from Chief Dayton's company dragged a huge fire hose up the 50-degree slope behind her house, where most of the mature oak, maples, chestnut and locust trees remained, but the ground was mottled black and gray. Throughout the day, firefighters were patrolling the lines and hustling to the scenes of flare-ups such as this one.

Westernport, whose 2,200 residents live in the hills where Georges Branch Creek joins the Potomac, has had its share of woes in recent years - job losses, floods, sewage spills, overburdened septic systems and a town budget that barely manages to stay in the black every year. So a brushfire that didn't damage homes or cost lives is just another aggravation.

Mayor Donald T. "Tom" Smith seemed more worried about a $21,000 monthly bill for sewer services from the Upper Potomac River Commission that is due today. The town had been paying a reduced rate of $4,000 a month, but that expired and the new bill had come due.

"I'm not paying it," he said. "I'm going to appeal it somehow."

Smith, a retired electrician at the nearby Westvaco paper plant, has been wrestling with municipal financial problems for the 3 1/2 years he has been in office.

The residents were lucky that the fire only came close to their doors, but it showed how they could pull together despite their other woes, said Town Clerk Debbie Deniker.

The fire raged out of control for the better part of two days, driven by northwest winds up to 15 mph.

Flames sped up the hill away from the river, driving fire crews back and licking at the tombstones on the edge of St. Peter's Cemetery. They burned the ground black around the grave of Peter P. Codyre, who was born in County Cork, Ireland, and died here in 1898 at the age of 67. The wind blew ashes across the grave of Daniel Hartnett, who was born in the city of Cork and died in 1881. His age was obliterated.

Crews, working through Wednesday night on steep, rocky slopes where the footing was treacherous, dug fire lines to stay ahead of the flames, then burned the brush within those lines to get rid of potential fuel.

With the sun less than an hour away from dipping behind the western mountains yesterday, a unit of nearly 100 Civilian Conservation Corps volunteers from throughout the state trooped off Horse Rock Hill along the edge of the woods, shovels in hand.

They were to begin digging more trenches and burning more possible fuel to keep the fire from starting again, said Bernie Zlomek, a project manager for the Maryland Forest Service. "We've got to make sure all the containment is 35-mile-an-hour proof," he said. "We've put a tremendous amount of effort into this, and we can't let it start again."

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