Great Bel Air Fire + 40

Folks look as they walk by the scene the day after the 1972 fire that gutted several buildings in downtown Bel Air. (Photo Courtesy of Todd Holden, Patuxent Homestead / January 30, 2012)

Thursday is the 40th anniversary of an event that has reverberated up and down Main Street in Bel Air to this day.

What some in town still refer to as the Great Bel Air Fire raged for more than four hours on Wednesday morning, Feb. 2, 1972 – Groundhog Day.

The fire resulted in the loss of six businesses and more than $2 million in damage. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured.

The three buildings where the fire was confined, one an imposing three-story structure known as the Vaughn Hotel just north and across Main Street from the Harford County Courthouse, had to be demolished shortly after the fire. Some 255 "men" fought the fire, according to one of the newspaper headlines of the day.

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The Aegis edition of Feb. 3, 1972, called the fire the worst in Bel Air's history – the town was incorporated in 1874, became the county seat of Harford County in 1782 and has existed in some form since 1731. There's been no fire in or close to Bel Air since that has matched its intensity or size.

The fire also came at a time when Main Street was starting to make a transition from a traditional small town business and retail center to a more specialty, professional center.

Raced down block

The fire started in the basement of the Red Fox Restaurant on the east side of the first block of South Main Street and quickly raced north down the block, destroying businesses in three adjacent buildings before firefighters contained it. They saved the Boyd and Fulford Drug Store building which was next in the fire's path.

Boyd and Fulford continues to operate 40 years later.

Boyd and Fulford co-owner Marytherese Street says she and her husband, Eugene, woke to the news of the fire that morning and were quite lucky.

Schools were closed that day for snow, she said Monday, so many of the high school teenagers involved with the 11 volunteer fire companies that fought the fire were able to help out.

"The high school kids are what saved us, because they all belonged to the fire company," she said.

Even with the additional help and venting on their roof to deter smoke damage, Boyd and Fulford sustained severe smoke and heat damage and even now is still recovering, Streett joked.

According to the account in The Aegis, the fire started in the Red Fox Restaurant, after a fuel tank in the basement of Bel Air Office Products that was being filled overflowed and the oil was ignited by the gas-fired water heater in the restaurant.

The restaurant, Bel Air Recreation Center, Bel Air Office Products, Main Street Market, Talles Jewelry Store and Smithson's Barber Shop were all destroyed.

Smell of smoke remembered

For Marytherese Streett, the smell of the smoke that day is one of her strongest memories.

"I remember the smell," she said. "I remember it like it was just yesterday."

Both she and Eugene Streett said they remember the firefighters telling them Boyd and Fulford was next and to evacuate the building. It was through that process, however, that the couple got a glimpse of the kindness of people.

"The whole place was filled with smoke," Marytherese Streett said, "but what I remember most is how kind people were."