Stump fire, though enduring, goes from clouds to puffs


Puffs of steam instead of smoke billowing from a Patapsco Valley stump fire prove that a chemical foam applied since VTC Tuesday is working, Baltimore County fire officials say -- but the blaze below may burn for weeks.

In two days, the foam has begun to do what dozens of firefighters, tons of water and relays of construction equipment had attempted to do for more than a week: put out the black smoke.

"The foam has already begun cooling down some hot spots and put out smoke in several wood piles," Battalion Chief J. Edward Crooks said yesterday.

Despite the promise of success, the chief and his men wearily watch the gray mist that lingers above the Patapsco Valley -- an ominous sign that an inferno still roars beneath the 7-acre dump site.

People living across the city line in Baltimore could still smell wood smoke lingering in the air yesterday, and for those who lived closer, the problems caused by the fire seemed even greater than before.

George Sauter, a resident of the 8600 block of Dogwood Road, said yesterday afternoon that the smoke had not dissipated, and had started to thicken shortly after noon.

"It's terrible around here right now," said Mr. Sauter.

He said he had had to wash soot from his car at least once a day. "You don't know what it could do to the paint on a car over the long term," he said.

Richard McCann, the Missouri fire expert who began spraying foam Tuesday, said the fire wasn't the worst he'd seen, but added: "This one is particularly bad because it's large and all underground."

Fire officials from Boston, Kansas City, Mo., and Ontario said yesterday that the foam used by Mr. McCann was extremely helpful in putting out fires that required special treatment.

Ervin Ross, acting deputy fire chief in Kansas City, said the foam helped suppress the smoke from a fire that burned for three weeks at a landfill in a residential area last October. But it did not completely extinguish the blaze, he said. Firefighters had to return to the scene about six times to put it out.

The Boston Fire Department used the foam Aug. 24, 1990, when a twin-engine, six-seat airplane crashed into a residential area at Logan International Airport.

The Boston department was so pleased with the results that it decided to use the foam on a trial basis for three months.

And fire officials in Ontario credit the foam with helping put out 14 million discarded tires that were set ablaze in February 1990 at the Tyre King Recycling Depot in Hagersville.

But firefighters in Hagersville were able to pull apart the mounds of tires as they sprayed on the foam. Firefighters in Baltimore County are unable to do that with the stumps.

Mr. McCann said tremendous heat from pockets of air and methane gas trapped in the layers of rotting wood buried 100 feet deep in some spots are fueling the fire from below and causing it to spread.

Mr. McCann said the difficult part of putting out the fire -- breaking open the ash dome covering the pockets and filling them with foam -- still lies ahead.

"It's just like a furnace down there," he said. "Once you break open those domes, fire comes shooting out of there just like flames from a jet engine, burning everything in its path."

Strong winds, showers, and cold temperatures expected today and tomorrow won't make the job any easier.

Fire officials said the ground is sure to become a muddy mess, the hoses spraying the foam are likely to freeze, and the winds will continue to stoke the flames.

Mr. McCann and county fire officials say the fire continues to burn an area much larger than it did when it began Feb. 3 and will undoubtedly cost more to put out with the foam than the $23,000 Mr. McCann was to have been paid for ten days of work.

Baltimore County officials said the county cannot force the dump's owner, James F. Jett, to pay for the cost of fighting the fire. They said it was a public service comparable to fighting a fire at any home or business.

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