Brush fire scorches preserve

Arundel blaze among dozens in Md. aided by wind, low humidity


Anne Arundel County firefighters, hauling water in backpacks and dragging more than a third of a mile of hose, vanquished a blaze yesterday in a nature preserve, apparently the largest of dozens of brush fires sparked this week amid snappy winds and low humidity from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

One county firefighter suffered a minor injury in the blaze at the preserve. A separate fire scorched 17 acres of woods and brush in Prince George's County. Fire officials were hoping for relief with diminishing wind and rain or snow forecast for much of the state early today.

"This is a once-a-year type of thing - or really a once-every-few-years thing," said Stuart D. McNicol, division chief for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, which sent about 125 firefighters scrambling into hilly terrain as flames rising more than 10 feet burned vines, stumps, grass and fallen branches across 100 acres in the Severn Run Natural Environment Area, a 1,700-acre state preserve.

The blaze was contained by late afternoon, but the department expected to have crews on hand all night extinguishing the last of the smoldering remains. A county firefighter suffered a minor respiratory injury and was being treated at the Baltimore-Washington Medical Center.

During the day, plumes of white smoke could be seen miles from the blaze, blowing over Interstate 97 and Veterans Highway, occasionally stalling traffic, said Lt. David D. Waltemeyer Jr., a county police spokesman.

The heaviest smoke clouded the sun and carried postage stamp-sized ash chunks through the air. Every 30 minutes, a helicopter - from either the state or Anne Arundel County Police - would take off or land.

"We used the helicopters for reconnaissance, to see where the fire line is and what the terrain is," McNicol said.

"It's very windy and the wind is changing directions," Lt. Russ Davies, spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said early yesterday. "It's spread out enough that there are several different fronts."

Anne Arundel firefighters didn't start dousing the blaze until about 11 a.m. Without hydrants in the area, the troops ferried water using tanker trucks and fire engines. They dumped water into a 3,000-gallon pool near the edge of the woods and used another engine to pump water through hoses.

At 2,000 feet, even the longest hose didn't reach far enough, so most firefighters used backpacks with 2 1/2 -gallon bladders to reach the blaze, McNicol said.

Early yesterday, the fire was moving southeast toward a business park off Benfield Boulevard, site of a propane company. As a precaution, two fire companies had staked out the area.

Davies said the department bused 45 recruits from the fire academy to the scene. Wearing dirty red pants and jackets, the trainees stomped into the woods with chain saws, shovels, rakes and hoes to clear a 5-foot-wide fire line through the forest. They cleared a line a half-mile long in 90 minutes, said Paul X. Shoemaker, a veteran firefighter supervising the trainees, who finished their brush fire course - part of their two-month training - only a few weeks ago.

"To me - I've been doing this for 15 years - it's a brush fire," Shoemaker said. "To them it's the greatest thing in the world - to see a brush fire, to see any fire."

Meanwhile, about a dozen Prince George's County firefighters stood watch yesterday over a patch of undeveloped land along U.S. 301 and Route 5 in Brandywine, where the largest of about 50 fires in the county Wednesday burned through 17 acres of forest and brush, racing up trees that stood 20 to 25 feet tall.

"We probably won't be able to extinguish this fire until we get some help from Mother Nature," said Prince George's County Fire Department spokesman Mark E. Brady.

Last night in Baltimore County, firefighters battled a brush fire for about 2 1/2 hours in a wooded area of Loch Raven Reservoir near Loch Raven Drive and Morgan Mill Road. The fire, which threatened no dwellings, was brought under control about 10 p.m.

Lt. Nancy Gill, a communications supervisor, said the fire quickly spread through at least 4 acres of a dry, elevated area some distance from roads and trails, making access difficult.

Fire officials said they were investigating what might have caused the blaze.

Nikole Listemaa of the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., said much of Maryland had more than a 50 percent chance of rain or snow after midnight, with the greatest chance of snow near the Pennsylvania line. The forecast called for no more than an inch of accumulation, Listemaa said.

She said the weather service posted a "red flag" fire warning for Maryland shortly before dawn Wednesday, as sustained winds topped 20 mph, with gusts over 40 mph, relative humidity dropped below 30 percent and the U.S. Forest Service reported "fuel moisture" - the relative dampness of grass and brush - to be about 8 percent.

Those conditions set the stage for fires from one end of the state to the other.

Chuck Gates, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Forest Service, said fires had also been put down this week on the Eastern Shore counties of Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset and in Frederick County. A spokesman for Carroll County Emergency Services said yesterday that some 15 bales of hay were burning at a horse farm on Woodbine Road.

Chip Jewell, Frederick County emergency communications chief, said his department sent 15 trucks and about 40 firefighters to help with brush fires in West Virginia, but aside from a few small fires here and there, his county had been spared.

"We've been pretty fortunate," Jewell said.

Sun staff reporter Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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