Too warm to be in, too smoky to go out


Fire investigators said today they now suspect an arsonist started a fire in a stump dump that has burned since early Saturday at a farm in western Baltimore County. The farm has been a target of neighborhood complaints for years.

The fire has sent heavy wood smoke drifting across a broad swath of the county and Baltimore. The situation has been made worse by record warm temperatures, which created an overnight temperature inversion that held the smoke close to the ground. The fire is expected to burn at least through Friday.

County air quality officials advised people suffering from chronic respiratory ailments to stay indoors and avoid exposure to the smoke, which is an irritant.

Forty firefighters were laboring with bulldozers and front-end loaders today to isolate, expose and douse underground fires that are consuming an acre of logs and stumps buried to depths of 40 to 60 feet and covered with dirt.

"It is a suspicious fire . . . malicious," Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson said today. There were no suspects.

The fire is at the Patapsco Valley Tree Farms in Granite, off the 8700 block of Dogwood Road, about 13 miles west of downtown Baltimore.

James F. Jett has operated a dump for land-clearing debris on the 220-acre property for many years, as neighbors complained of truck traffic and worried about potential environmental problems.

However, repeated appeals and complaints to state and county officials, and to the courts, failed to close the operation.

National Weather Service forecasters at Baltimore-Washington International Airport said today the smoke situation is being made worse by nightly temperature inversions that prevent the smoke from dissipating.

"It's like putting a lid on the atmosphere a couple hundred or a thousand feet above the ground," said forecaster Ken Shaver.

Daytime temperatures reached a record 65 degrees at the airport yesterday, topping 1983's mark of 54. Yesterday, at the Custom House in Baltimore, the recorded high of 67 barely topped the mark of 66 set in 1932.

Overnight, temperatures dropped to the low 30s near the ground, but the air several hundred feet up remained in the 50s, Shaver said. That held the smoke near the ground.

The mercury reached 70 degrees at BWI at 12:45 p.m. today, smashing the 59-degree record set in 1957. In downtown Baltimore the temperature reached 67 degrees, breaking the old record of 66 degrees set in 1903.

Cooling temperatures after sunset were expected to re-establish an inversion tonight. Cooling daytime temperatures after tomorrow were expected to end the inversions.

Chief Nelson said the fire involves "tree stumps, logs and vegetation." Although there is building debris, including shingles and scrap lumber on the property, "that part is not burning," he said.

"There is no hazardous material of any kind involved" in the fire, Nelson said.

One county firefighter suffered a sprained foot and knee fighting the fire. He was treated at Baltimore County General Hospital and released, Nelson said.

John Goheen, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said state solid waste and air quality personnel were sent to monitor the situation. But he said the state has had no jurisdiction over the Jett dump since the courts have ruled it is a recycling operation, not a construction debris landfill.

Recycling operations are regulated by the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

David H. Filbert, chief of the department's air quality bureau, said Jett has applied for a county permit to operate a solid waste processing facility. A decision is pending.

Workers at the Social Security Administration office in Woodlawn early today complained of a noxious odor and said a number of workers suffered tearing eyes, coughing and breathing difficulties. Several had reported to agency nurses.

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