250 firefighters, fireboats battle blaze at mulch plant

Sparrows Point sky fills with smoke

piles of wood feed flames over 3 acres

August 09, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Smoke snaked high into a postcard blue sky yesterday as piles of wood four stories tall burned out of control at a mulch plant on Sparrows Point, causing a seven-alarm fire that Baltimore County firefighters expect to be fighting throughout today.

No one was injured in the fire, which began shortly before 4 a.m. and required the equivalent of an entire shift of county firefighters - more than 250 people - and some neighboring departments to fight it.

Because there are no hydrants nearby, several fire boats, including Baltimore City's, were used to siphon water from nearby Bear Creek onto the flames, which at one point covered about 3 acres.

"It's a major operation," said Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman. "But we're well equipped and staffed."

Firefighters compared the blaze to a huge outdoor fire pit, with branches, wood frames and chips serving as kindling.

"It is like a big campfire," Essex firefighter Mike M. Stawski said yesterday. "It just takes time to put it out."

Fire investigators were unable yesterday to determine what had caused the fire, said Lt. Vernon S. Adamson.

There are no residents in the immediate area and no buildings were burned, although the fire threatened several large warehouses used as mechanical shops by Environmental Recycling Waste Reduction Co., which leases the 16-acre industrial site and owns the burning woodpile.

Smoke from the fire, however, could be smelled throughout the Baltimore harbor area.

The company primarily produces mulch. One of the owners, Steve Timchula, said he expects they'll be out of business for about a month to clean up once the fire is extinguished. He was unable to estimate a dollar loss.

"Mostly what we'll be losing is time," Timchula said. "What's burning now was going to used as filler for sludge."

Timchula said the company, founded in 1993, has 14 employees and was planning to add a 24-hour watchman beginning last night. A Sparrows Point police officer discovered the fire and, after calling 911, called Timchula at home, he said.

Yesterday's firefighting was complicated by gusty winds and by mud that clogged water lines in Bear Creek, fire officials said.

But the wind was also a blessing. Though it made fighting the fire more difficult, it kept firefighters cool, they said. The low temperatures and low humidity also prevented firefighters from becoming exhausted. "These temperatures have been a relief," Stawski said.

Fire officials said they had no problems finding enough personnel to fight the fire.

"Volunteers come out of the woodwork when we get something big like this," Hohman said.

They received help from neighboring fire departments, including Anne Arundel and Howard counties. Inspectors from the state Department of the Environment were also on the scene, Adamson said, though he said he thought environmental danger was minimal because only a small amount of the wood - some old telephone poles - had been treated with creosote.

Hohman said the department had faced much tougher and deadly fires: "We've had worse."

The chief and several other firefighters mentioned the 1991 stump dump fire in Granite that burned for several years. Yesterday's fire might burn for days, but not months or years, firefighters said.

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