Dog, 40 cats die in Forest Hill house fire

More than 40 animals ranging from cats to baby turtles were found dead following a house fire on Rocks Road in Forest Hill late Monday night that has prompted the Harford County government to start an animal hoarding investigation.

Most of the dead animals, including a fox, were found dead inside refrigerators – many in bags – inside two structures on the property, county government spokesman Bob Thomas said Tuesday. Dozens of live animals were also found on the property.

Animal control personnel at the scene also reported there are snakes of an unknown number and species on the property, he said.

Before county officials arrived Tuesday morning, the dozen cats that died in the fire had already been buried on the property, Thomas said.

Thomas said Department of Natural Resources, Harford County Animal Control, county health department and county building inspections personnel were still at the property Tuesday afternoon, removing live and dead animals and assessing conditions.

The number of animals found in the house Monday night prompted firefighters to call Harford County Animal Control to investigate the home, Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company Chief Eddie Hopkins said early Tuesday morning, shortly after leaving the scene of the fire. County building inspectors were also called.

Donald Kirk, owner of the one-story modular home, told firefighters he was awakened shortly after 11 p.m. Monday by cats crying or screaming. He said he could smell smoke and saw it coming from the stove in the home's kitchen and got out of the house. His wife, Nancy, was not home when the fire started.

The house was filled with smoke, Hopkins said, "thick, putrid, dark black smoke," which necessitated firefighters breaking a number of windows so they could see inside.

About 30 firefighters from the Bel Air and Jarrettsville volunteer fire companies responded. One firefighter from Jarrettsville sprained his ankle stepping off the truck and onto a hose; he was taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, Hopkins said.

Kirk suffered from smoke inhalation, but refused medical attention other than at the scene. He went to stay with family members.

Hopkins said the modular home is uninhabitable. It is one two dwellings on the 2.3-acre property, according to Thomas, who said the other is a mobile home that had been turned into a storage building.

Damage to the home that burned was estimated at $10,000, damage to contents at $5,000, the fire marshal's office said.

The couple, Hopkins said, "owned a lot of domestic dogs and cats."

A number of the cats as well as at least one dog died in the fire, not from the flames but from the smoke, he said.

He estimated firefighters brought out at least a dozen cats and tried to save some of them using their equipment, but they weren't successful.

In a notice of investigation issued Tuesday morning, the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office said: "It is estimated approximately 40 cats and one dog perished in the fire."

Animal control was called because of the number of animals in the home and to determine what, if any, health risk they pose and if they are violating any Harford County codes, laws or health regulations, Hopkins said.

Hopkins said he was told Kirk and his wife do wildlife rescue and treat animals, adding there may have been some non-domestic animals in the house, including some baby raccoons that were ready to be released.

An Aegis photographer who attempted to visit the fire scene Tuesday was asked not to enter. The house sits at the end of a long lane, and the photographer said he could see county animal control vehicles on the property.

Among the animals found alive were nine cats, three dogs, 10 adult raccoons, one tortoise and 51 turtles (eight to nine different types that aren't all indigenous to the area) were found alive and were taken by Maryland Natural Resources personnel to the Humane Society of Harford County. The raccoons were to be euthanized, Thomas said.

Besides the 12 cats that died in the fire, officials also found another dead cat, a dead dog, six dead kittens, one dead fox, two dead adult raccoons, six dead baby raccoons, one dead baby squirrel, two dead baby birds and 12 dead baby turtles.

Loose cats considered feral were still in the storage trailer and couldn't be removed; animal control left traps to complete the removal, Thomas said.

Animal control and licensing and permitting officials will meet with the county attorney to determine if any charges will be filed against the property owner, Thomas said.

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