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State investigates fire at Hobbit's Glen club


The state fire marshal's office is investigating a fire that caused an estimated $1 million in damage yesterday to a maintenance building and equipment at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia.

About 20 firefighters battled the 4 a.m. blaze that engulfed the 4-year-old one-story building in a wooded area just beyond the club's driving range, putting it out in about 30 minutes, said Lt. Chris Shimer, a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

Most of the 15,000-square-foot, L-shaped building at the end of Willow Bottom Drive was destroyed.

Andrew Bennet, 19, a volunteer firefighter from Clarksville, was treated for heat exhaustion at Howard County General Hospital and released, according to fire officials.

Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said yesterday afternoon after an initial investigation that it was "too early to say arson is suspected or not suspected. It may be several days before we have a preliminary cause."

Firefighters reported seeing several juveniles running from the area, said Mr. Shimer.

The investigation was hampered by odors and smoke coming from a corner of the building where insecticides, fertilizers and other chemicals were stored, Mr. Thomas said.

A county fire department Special Incident Response Team wearing protective suits searched for hazardous materials. Lt. Stephen Ricker said that the team didn't find chemicals remaining after the fire that could be readily identified, and that there didn't appear be danger from toxic chemicals.

An emergency response unit from the Maryland Department of the Environment also inspected the site to ensure that an estimated 350 pounds of lawn treatment chemicals stored in the building would not run off in water used to extinguish the fire, said Sandra Palmer, department spokeswoman. She said a nearby storm-water management pond appeared to contain the runoff.

Agents from the Baltimore field office of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are assisting the state fire marshal's office in the investigation because of the magnitude of the loss, Mr. Thomas said.

Officials of the Columbia Association, which manages recreational and community facilities, were shaken.

"It's like losing part of your family," said Bill Neus, the golf course superintendent. "This was an excellent facility. We were really proud of it and kept it in great shape."

It was the second time within the past year that an association facility was destroyed by fire. Last August, an arson fire destroyed the Bryant Woods Neighborhood Center, causing an estimated $250,000 in damage. The association rebuilt the center and is sponsoring a re-opening reception tonight.

Two other association facilities -- the Columbia Athletic Club and Amherst House in Kings Contrivance village -- also received less VTC severe electrical fire damages within the past four years.

"Any time you have a fire, it's very discouraging to the office staff here, but more to the people who work at that facility," said Pamela Mack, association spokeswoman. "And if this is arson, it's unbelievably discouraging. We lost a building not a year ago to arson. To lose another one, it's terrible."

Association workers took inventory of lost equipment and materials, such as tractors, carts and fertilizers, salvaging what they could and scrambling to establish makeshift operations. For example, the course's irrigation system was shut down because power to the pump house was cut off, but workers used tank trucks to water the course.

The fire didn't disrupt golfers, who were able to tee off at the course's 7:30 a.m. opening and throughout the day.

"The biggest challenge we face is that we're not out of business," Mr. Neus said. "The golf course is the facility. We've got to provide a quality facility in spite of this."

Mr. Neus said other golf clubs and equipment distributors have offered staff and supplies.

The maintenance building was constructed in 1990 for about $500,000, said Ms. Mack. The building replaced an old dairy barn that had served as the maintenance facility. The course was opened in 1968.

Investigators are asking anyone with information about the fire to call the State Fire Marshal's Arson Hot Line at (800) 492-7529.

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