Blazes at rural homes far from water supply alarm firefighters


When firefighters arrived at a fire on Lynch Lane in rural northern Baltimore County last month, they found a house in flames at the end of a long, narrow road. The nearest source of water was three-quarters of a mile away at Little Gunpowder Falls.

Unable to get a full-sized engine down the bank to the stream, firefighters sank hoses of three small trucks into the stream and pumped water uphill 400 feet to an engine on Baldwin Mill Road, which pumped it through more hoses and engines in a 4,000-foot lifeline to the house.

It took firefighters and equipment from eight different companies in Baltimore and Harford counties a half-hour to get their water relay working and nearly three hours to put out the fire. Meanwhile, the ranch house -- only 1 1/2 years old -- burned to the ground.

It's a scene firefighters fear will occur more frequently as development in the rural areas of Harford, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties grows.

With homes as well as businesses and industry being built in the countryside long before public water service is available, the need to tap Maryland's streams, ponds and rivers to fight fires increases.

Finding water is not difficult; firefighters keep a book detailing locations. But getting to the water to pump it into the tank of a firetruck can be troublesome. The bank of a river may be steep. Or covered in snow or ice. Or too muddy to support a vehicle.

"The quicker you can set up a water source, the better off you are," said John Simpson, chief of Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Co. in northwestern Harford County.

"If you can save 20 minutes, that's significant. Twenty minutes in a house fire is the difference between saving the place and it burning down."

And the faster insurance companies believe water will get to a fire, the less they'll charge for insurance.

But in the counties surrounding Baltimore, only Anne Arundel has a law requiring developers of new single-family homes to guarantee a nearby water supply for firefighting. There, whenever rural land is subdivided for residential construction, one or more 5,000-gallon underground water tanks must be installed so that every structure in the subdivision is within 2,000 feet "by accessible roadway" of a tank.

Anne Arundel's law has been on the books since 1978, said Robert Dvorak, the county's chief administrative officer and a former fire administrator there.

Other counties have been less successful.

"We highly recommend it, but we don't have any requirements" for residential construction in areas without public water, said Ken Byerly, a lieutenant in the Howard County Fire Prevention Bureau.

He sits on the county's Subdivision Review Committee and can recommend that builders provide access to a nearby pond or stream when their site plans come up for review, "but we can't require it," he said.

"We don't have a big problem out here, though," he said, because "public water is moving west. Still, some houses in Howard are larger than our apartment complexes, and they need quite a bit of water supply."

Carroll restrictions tightened

Restrictions on rural development in Carroll were tightened in 1990. A resolution now requires that an adequate water supply ** for firefighting be available within 600 feet of any new commercial, industrial or multi-family residential development where public water does not exist.

Builders may install an underground water tank, install an access pipe at a nearby pond or stream or build a road to the nearest body of water to meet that requirement.

The ordinance, however, does not apply to construction of single-family homes.

Nor are there restrictions in the northern reaches of Harford or Baltimore counties, where clusters of homes worth a half-million dollars each dot the landscape in once-rural areas such as Jarrettsville, Jacksonville, Butler and Hereford.

It's not just the number of homes, says Claud Gamble, chief of the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Co., it's also the size of homes being built today, some of which have "five times the number of rooms" of homes a generation ago.

"That means the gallons-per-minute flow [of water] has to increase. Any time you add something to a structure -- including size -- you add hazards," said Mr. Gamble, who also is chairman of the Water Resource Committee created by county volunteers to study rural water availability.

Harford looks to bridge gap

In Harford, an effort is under way to make it easier for the county's rural fire companies to tap into natural water sources. County Councilman Barry Glassman, a volunteer with the Level Volunteer Fire Co. in the northeastern area of the county, has introduced a bill that would require standpipes when new bridges are built or old ones are repaired.

Working much like a city fire hydrant, but not under pressure, the standpipe would allow easy and quick hose hookup to a fire engine stopped on the bridge -- possibly trimming as much as 20 minutes or more off the time it takes to get water to some fires.

Fire protection is sometimes the last thing some well-heeled homebuyers think about when moving to the isolated, pristine areas north of Baltimore, Mr. Gamble said. "I'm afraid the affluence has hurt us. We're still playing catch-up.

"We do protect them," he said, "but we have to go a ways to do it. In some cases, it's miles."

In the case of a home under construction on Country Club Drive a few years ago, it was five miles round-trip, from the water source to the house.

"We had to go to the back ponds on the [Hillendale] country club property to get water, about 2 1/2 miles away," he said. "And it was 2 1/2 miles of some of the most winding, hilly roads around.

"We probably moved 30,000 to 40,000 gallons of water to that fire," said Mr. Gamble.

Still the home, on a narrow lane off Blenheim Road, burned to the ground.

He said he'd like to see a law requiring underground water tanks in areas where the natural source of water is that far away.

Builders fear costs

Builders, however, say the cost of installing underground tanks in new developments would be exorbitant.

"You have to ask yourself what's it going to cost to do this and is it worth it for the number of fires there are in a year's time and the number of people it will affect," said John Clark, Baltimore County chapter president of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.

"It would be outrageously expensive to do underground tanks," he said. "It probably would be cheaper to have a fireman at every house."

Robert Holland, of Atlantic Tank and Vessel Co. in Baltimore, said that the cost of an installed "fire suppression" tank could range from about $6,000 for a 5,000-gallon tank to about $20,000 for a 20,000-gallon one, though costs vary depending on tank quality and location.

Mr. Clark said he'd rather see more fire stations established in remote areas or even have builders incorporate ponds into a neighborhood design. "You have to ask, 'How much is the house worth?' After all, it's insured," he said.

Insurers keep watch, too

In fact, lower home insurance rates would be one of the benefits of adopting his standpipe bill, Mr. Glassman told Harford council members at a public hearing on the proposed legislation earlier this month.

John G. Fortuna, an agent with Nationwide Insurance, said making water more accessible could save as much as 28 percent on a homeowner's insurance premium.

"Our experience has been that a frame building in a rural area is almost always a total loss," Mr. Fortuna told the council. "But if something like this [proposed law] were presented to all insurance carriers, you would have a lot of support."

In the Harford bill, the standpipe would be made of heavy-grade plastic pipe with a strainer attached to the submerged end. The other end would extend to the road surface of the bridge where firefighters could simply connect their hoses.

"It would be as good a source of water as a hydrant in Bel Air," said Mr. Glassman. A 1,000-gallon tanker stopped on the bridge could fill up in less than two minutes, he said.

While the proposal would likely result in less than six standpipes being installed a year, according to Larry Klimovitz, Harford's director of administration, firefighters there say it is the first step in a progressive plan to improve water access.

"You've got to start somewhere," said Mr. Simpson, of the Jarrettsville fire company. His was the first unit to arrive at the Lynch Lane fire.

"They did everything they could; they brought tankers in from all over," said Sharon Sundstrom, owner of that house, which was just over the Harford County line in Baldwin.

"There was just no water. Out here the firemen don't have a chance."

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