The wind shifts, clearing a view through the smoke of burning tree stumps to reveal a tall, gray-bearded man of 300 pounds dressed in a black jacket, jeans secured by a saucer-sized belt buckle and a cap emblazoned with a Kodiak bear.
Rich McCann, 39, known to friends as "The Bear," is from Team Kodiak, Foam Fire Control Inc., of Springfield, Mo., a company that specializes in putting out unusual fires with a foam spray that he compares with dishwashing liquid.
McCann drove from Missouri to southwestern Baltimore County in his foam-mixing truck to begin work yesterday on the tree stump fire that has raged underground and spewed smoke for almost two weeks at Patapsco Valley Farms in Granite. He and a colleague supervised county firefighters in spraying the foam.
Local firefighters have tried for 11 days to put out a fire they believe may have been set intentionally. The 220-acre site, parts of it piled high with tree stumps and other construction debris, has been at the center of local controversy for years. Neighbors say they noticed smoke as far back as last September.
McCann, who founded Team Kodiak and developed its techniques, explained that the foam "goes places where you can't make water go."
Alone, water cuts a set course through the tangle of stumps and debris, preventing it from reaching far into the pile to the fire. Mixed with the foam, the water loses its surface tension, McCann said, enabling the solution to seep through every cavity of the pile as deep as 100 feet.
McCann's strategy is to prevent the fire from spreading to a dump access road that would be undermined if its foundation were burned to charcoal ash.
After the fire is contained, McCann plans to attack through the spaces in the pile where intense heat causes the smoke to gush upward. Firefighters will spray these "strong vents," which indicate a direct route to the worst of the fire underneath.
Since last weekend, when McCann surveyed the job and accepted it, the fire has expanded fourfold, he said, to about seven acres. And with it, McCann has lengthened his original estimate of 10 days for the job, but he can't tell how much longer it will take. His price, first estimated at about $23,000, is likely to rise, too.
All he can predict now is that within about two days, the foam will have converted enough smoke to steam to relieve some of the persistent burning smell. Residents in eastern Baltimore County, 30 miles from the fire, have reported smelling it.
At a Granite community meeting Monday night, county officials said they were looking into whether James Jett, who owns the tree farm and dump, will be liable for some of the cost of subduing the fire.
Earlier, the county estimated that it was spending $10,000 a day on the fire. The figure has since dropped to about $4,000 a day, said county fire Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson, as tactics shifted from using heavy equipment to move debris to spraying foam.
The foam, which goes by the trade name Phos-Chek WD 881, is manufactured by the Monsanto Corp. The product has "strutted its stuff in highly publicized fires in Kansas City, Mo., and Hagersville, Ont.," according to a two-page press release distributed by a woman who appeared at the fire yesterday in a fur coat, representing the company.
McCann said he normally uses the Monsanto foam, and sometimes even Dawn dishwashing liquid, which he says helps cut through grease and oil in other kinds of dump fires. What the foam and dishwashing liquid have in common is surfactant, an ingredient that causes bubbling, he said.
State officials say their toxic expert has checked the foam components and found no potential hazard, although the county has dug sediment pits around the site and arranged to monitor air and water runoff.
To fight the fire, water is pumped a mile from Brice Run along a hose into McCann's truck. There, it is mixed with hot air and solution, one quart to every 100 gallons of water. The mix gushes from three hoses staffed by fire crews working the fire.
McCann expects to mix as much as 1,000 gallons of fluid with water, spraying from sunup to sundown until the fire is out. Crews are stationed at the site around the clock. McCann will live in a National Guard field trailer at the dump and venture out periodically into the night to check his work.
A mechanical engineer, McCann started Team Kodiak after working on a project to design the foam mixing and delivery system. His business uses techniques and equipment that most fire departments may never need.
"A fire like this will happen maybe once in 50 years," McCann said, so, for most fire departments, "it's kind of hard to train for something like that."