Response under fire

Efforts to save burning homes hindered by secluded location

December 09, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

The homes on Shore Drive are tucked into a peninsula that offers striking views of the Chesapeake, from the cattails along the shore to the Bay Bridge in the distance. But the geography that makes the secluded neighborhood so alluring also presented obstacles to efforts to save a line of houses from a wind-whipped, five-alarm fire early yesterday.

A lack of hydrants and narrow roads left tanker trucks trying to squeeze into the neighborhood and bring water from a nearby school. A truck initially struggled to pull water from the bay, though boats were later summoned from southern Anne Arundel County to draw from a creek.

"We had water, water everywhere, but none to pump onto the fire," said Nancy Plaxico, a neighbor whose gray siding buckled in the heat of the fire across the street.

Damage was estimated at more than $2 million, with two homes destroyed and four others damaged - one of them severely - in the community of Oyster Harbor south of Annapolis. Nobody was killed in the fire.

As firefighters tramped through the smoking ruins yesterday afternoon, some neighbors questioned whether crews acted quickly enough.

But officials said firefighters did their best in challenging conditions.

"Without question, we could have lost up to six homes this evening were it not for the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who placed themselves in extraordinary danger to save three homes," Anne Arundel County Fire Chief John R. Ray said in a statement.

Crews were hampered by strong winds that pushed flames across a street, where they burned through a fire hose, damaged a firetruck and momentarily trapped firefighters, Fire Department spokesman Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia said.

Investigators had not yet determined the cause of the fire but said that it did not appear suspicious.

Neighbor Jimmy Sturman said he and his wife were getting ready for bed when they saw thick, black smoke billowing from a house across the street. The Sturmans helped a neighbor and her two school-age daughters to safety and alerted a second neighbor that his home had started to catch fire.

Crews arrived within nine minutes of receiving the call and quickly radioed for backup, Tobia said. When firefighters arrived, the first home was engulfed in fire, and flames were leaping from the second, Tobia said. Sparks were shooting from two 250-gallon tanks of propane in front of the second house, and firefighters focused on preventing the tanks from exploding and from causing the fire to spread to homes across the street, he said.

More than 100 firefighters from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis and Queen Anne's and Calvert counties worked with the Anne Arundel crews to bring the fire under control about 12:20 a.m., about two hours after it was reported.

Neighbors said fire crews seemed disorganized and seemed to take too much time before shooting water onto the burning homes. Crews initially tried to pump water from the bay, but it was low tide, and they pulled mostly sediment, Tobia said.

Tobia pointed out that a new fire station is set to open in the community early next year but that the fire burned so quickly that the outcome would have probably been the same.

"From our perspective, when nobody dies, when we save salvageable property and when all of our emergency responders return home safely, we've done our job," Tobia said.

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