250 firefighters, fireboats battle blaze at mulch plant

Sparrows Point sky full of smoke

piles of wood feed flames over 3 acres

August 09, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt and Johnathon E. Briggs | Laura Barnhardt and Johnathon E. Briggs,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 in Sparrows Point, causing a seven-alarm fire that Baltimore County firefighters expect to be fighting throughout today.

The blaze was the second major mulch fire at the plant owned by Environmental Recycling Waste Reduction Co. (ERWR) since 1996, when a burning 3-acre mound sent flames 100 yards into the air and then smoldered for several days before burning itself out.

As a result of the earlier blaze, the company has been operating under a consent decree imposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, including requirements that mulch mounds be spaced apart and periodically turned to prevent spontaneous combustion, said department spokesman Richard McIntyre.

The cause of yesterday's blaze was unknown. It broke out shortly before 4 a.m. and required the equivalent of an entire shift of county firefighters - more than 250 people - and departments in neighboring Howard and Anne Arundel counties to fight it.

Because no hydrants are nearby, several fireboats, including Baltimore'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."

No injuries were reported.

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," said Essex firefighter Mike M. Stawski. "It just takes time to put it out."

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 ERWR, 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.

State environmental officials said that because much of the material that burned was not chemically treated, there was no immediate threat to public health in yesterday's fire.

Nonetheless, officials issued a complaint against the company for creating a public nuisance, discharging air pollutants and creating a situation harmful to the public health, McIntyre said, adding, "We will continue to monitor the situation."

The company primarily produces mulch. One of the owners, Steve Timchula, said he expects it will 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 be 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 for the battle.

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

They received help from neighboring fire departments, including Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

County fire Lt. Vernon S. Adamson 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 deadlier fires: "We've had worse."

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

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