It was there with every breath -- the smoke of a distant wood fire wafting over the Patapsco Valley yesterday like an eclipse moving across a sunlit sky.
The dense fumes, from a 75-foot smoldering heap of tree stumps at the Patapsco Valley Farm on Dogwood Road, remained suspended just overhead for most of the day. The patchy shroud of gray covered parts of western Baltimore County and could be seen for miles.
Until the fire burns out or is extinguished, there will be many more teary-eyed, sore-throat days of discomfort for people living and working in the Woodlawn-Catonsville area.
The smoke that others had to squint to see was all that Lorraine Fauth could view from her Rolling Road home, which was pTC cloaked in a gray fog that grew thicker as the day became warmer.
"I couldn't believe it. It was as if all of Westview Park was on fire," Mrs. Fauth said. "The smoke was so heavy I couldn't even see the other side of Rolling Road."
The dense fumes settled upon Albert Ames as he directed traffic from a guard post at the entrance of the Social Security complex in Woodlawn. With every breath of dank air he drew, his head hurt and his stomach felt queasy, he said.
Others working at the complex abandoned their cubbyholes and windowless offices as fumes seeped through open vents and became trapped in the maze of narrow corridors connecting myriad buildings. Some took advantage of the agency's leave policy and went home, spokesman Frank Battistelli said.
Despite the smoke, air quality in the area remained moderate yesterday, state air quality officials said.
J. Edward Crooks, a Balitimore County fire chief, said that it could take firefighters weeks to put out the blaze burning deep beneath a pile of wood debris at the farm, which is owned by
James A. Jett.
Mr. Jett remained in his office at the farm yesterday but did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
Until recently, Mr. Jett had not needed a permit to store tree stumps on his property. But new county laws regulating waste disposal required him to apply for a permit, which may depend on the outcome of the fire.
Firefighters were digging a trench around the smoldering heap to prevent the fire from spreading to a grove of trees and homes along the densely wooded, rural valley.
Joann Dietz, who lives about a mile from the farm, was among many residents who opposed the operation when it opened 10 years ago as a tree farm and soon began accepting wood stumps cleared from construction sites.
"We've watched a little hill of tree stumps become a gigantic mountain of rubble," Mrs. Dietz said. "At nighttime, you can see the smoldering little pockets of flames. It almost looks like a volcano. It's beautiful, but it's
scary," she said.
Residents have complained to county and state officials that the farm was actually a hazardous waste site that posed a fire hazard, contaminated nearby streams with water runoff from the debris and attracted insects to their property.
They said Mr. Jett was raking in profits at the expense of their safety. They appealed to public officials and even sought the judgment of a county grand jury, but nothing resulted from the inquiry.
It was only a matter of time before a fire there would bring the concerns of a small community to the attention of all of Baltimore County, said Kathleen Skullney, who lives a mile away.
"This fire was preventable," she said. "That debris has been smoldering since September. Then, we could only smell the smoke and see the steam rising from the heap."
For five years residents have watched the dump issue become sidelined in court, at numerous public hearings and in the closed chambers of public officials.
Herb Lowe, another area resident, said it is the taxpayers who will pay for the damage to the environment caused by the long-burning dump fire. "This has never been a legal dump," he said. "Hopefully, Baltimore County government will sit up and take notice and stop this guy."