Charges are expected to be brought within a week to 10 days against the owners of a Forest Hill home where as many as 150 animals, dead and alive, were found following a fire late Monday night.
"It's not if charges will be filed, it's what charges we are going to file and what agencies are going to file them," Robert Thomas, a Harford County government spokesman, said Thursday afternoon.
Besides the county, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will also bring charges against Donald and Nancy Kirk, of the 2400 block of Rocks Road just north of Jarrettsville Road, though Thomas declined to specify what those charges will be.
Firefighters dispatched to the home shortly after 11 p.m. Monday put out the fire in the kitchen, then during their search through the house, came upon numerous animals, mostly cats, some of which were alive, but many of which were dead.
Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company Chief Eddie Hopkins said firefighters tried to save some of the cats, but it was futile.
They tried to use their breathing masks on the cats that were still alive, doing what Hopkins termed a "blow by," hoping to "get them a shot of fresh air and they recover."
"Sadly, the cats were still sluggish, slow and, in my estimation, near death. Others the firefighters brought out were clearly deceased," he said Wednesday.
Initial estimates on how many animals were in the home and on the property varied, but it is estimated that as many as 70 to 80 animals were found dead, and another 70 to 75 animals were found alive. Besides the house, a mobile home converted to a storage trailer is also on the 2.3-acre property.
Fire marshals, who arrived at the property before animal control or building inspectors Tuesday morning, found 30 to 40 dead animals, including a dog, that had been removed from the home and buried.
When animal control and officials from the county's department of inspections, licenses and permits got to the home, they found "another 40-some animals deceased in refrigerators, freezers and on the property," Thomas said.
He said the county is not in a rush to file the charges.
"They will be brought in an appropriate time frame, but we don't want to make a rush to judgment," he said. "We want to make sure we collect all the evidence, document the situation well and take appropriate corrective actions."
The home is uninhabitable, Thomas said, not only because of the fire and smoke damage, but also because of the animals in the house.
The county has posted the Kirks property with appropriate notice as required by the county code regarding the property owners rights to attempt to recover the animals within 10 days.
The three living dogs removed are being held in quarantine for 45 days at a facility in Pennsylvania. Nine cats removed are being held separately to determine if they have been vaccinated for rabies, Thomas said.
Besides the county, fire marshal and Maryland Natural Resources, the Harford County Health Department and the State Health Department are also part of the investigation.
When firefighters arrived at a house fire late Monday night in the 2400 block of Rocks Road in Forest Hill, it wasn't anything unusual, besides that the house was about 1,000 feet off the road and surrounded by some thick brush.
"We found fire in the kitchen, we put it out," Eddie Hopkins, Chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, said Wednesday. "From a firefighting perspective, it's a room and contents fire."
It wasn't until the fire was out and firefighters started checking for flames elsewhere in the house the situation became unusual.
"The firefighters started finding some of the cats," he said. "They brought them out, some deceased, some alive."
It became obvious multiple animals were inside the house, but firefighters weren't aware it was anything more than domestic ones, such as cats and dogs.
As they started to look more closely, Hopkins became concerned about his firefighters' safety.
"Once we were sure the house was clear, there were no other humans inside and the fire was out, it became evident to me, based on the odor around the house, the smell, the number of animals, I had to start thinking about additional safety of my firefighters."
They were crawling around the house, possibly around dead animals and animal feces, and Hopkins was afraid of possible exposure to animal diseases.
Once they came out, the firefighters' gear "reeked" of being exposed to animal feces, said Hopkins, who spent most of Tuesday cleaning and laundering all the equipment that came in contact with the house.
Hopkins' biggest concern Monday night into Tuesday morning was the unknown, not knowing what he was dealing with in the house.
"I knew something was not right at this location. I knew there were domestic animals, but I didn't know how many were in there. We're not going back to search for dead animals, I'm not going to expose my firefighters to unnecessary risk," Hopkins said.
He called the county's animal control for guidance, and they agreed it would be best to wait until morning for them to investigate.
"There wasn't much they could do at 2 a.m. It was dark back there, they had raccoons in the house; if they were loose and got scared... we didn't know anything about them" he said. "Not knowing what they have, working in the dark, exposes a number of people to a lot of unnecessary risks."
Hopkins said he hasn't seen a case like this in "many, many, many years."
The odor coming from the home was above and beyond smoke – it presented a heath risk.
"It was an odor you do not want to breathe continuously," he said, adding it was difficult to stand and have a conversation with someone next to him because the smell was so "noxious."
The incident was dangerous because of the unknown, but Hopkins said it doesn't have to be that way.
People who legally own exotic or unusual animals, or legally have an unusual number of domestic animals in their home, can notify Harford County's 911 center through their local fire department and have their residence flagged. The dispatcher sending out the fire company can alert the firefighters so they're prepared if they come across snakes or raccoons or other unusual animals.
"Otherwise, it presents a challenge that takes us way from our primary focus, which is taking care of human beings and property," Hopkins said. "Any time there are special circumstances at a home, if the homeowners think ahead and plan, it lets us be better prepared."