Drought, and another lost youth 1998: Across Maryland, lack of rain kindles fears of fire. In East Baltimore, rubble is a reminder of a shooting.


Editor's note: Today, we conclude our series of stories following up on some of the people and issues that made news in the Baltimore area in 1998.

It's not entirely true that people only talk about the weather but never do anything about it.

Even now, as we watch the skies for predicted showers, the pertinent agents of the state's bureaucracy are deployed to deal with the dangerous consequences of months of the very worst weather -- drought, to be specific.

A little more than two months ago, this newspaper reported the bleak conditions statewide. Rainfall was sparse. There had been only 3.6 inches since July 1 and the governor was poised to declare drought disaster areas in nine counties. Even as recently as Thanksgiving he dictated a ban on open burning.

Well, those counties were declared disaster areas, and federal assistance was forthcoming. But things got much, much worse before they started getting better.

The drought continued: The National Weather Service reported rainfall from July 1 through Nov. 24 running 10 to 11 inches below normal. As a result, here and there, the State of Maryland was literally burning up.

Alan Zentz of the Department of Natural Resources reported in early December that current forest conditions for the fall and initial stages of the winter were the worst in a decade. "Since the first of September we've reported over 400 wildfires that have burned almost 800 acres."

As of Dec. 9, Maryland had suffered more than 700 fires for the year. That's 100 above the 10-year average for the state.

But the crisis, such as it is, goes even deeper. Literally.

"Normally in this part of the country we have surface burn," said Zentz. "When fires burn the brush in woodlands, they are just burning the surface. It may take two or three hours to put out a two- to three-acre fire."

But this year, he says, wildfires have been burning deeper, because material just beneath the surface has been so dry. This material, made up of decomposing vegetation, pine cones, sticks, is normally moist.

"Under these conditions a fire can burn as much as two feet down into the ground," he says. On Nov. 18, Zentz reported that a fire near Willards in Wicomico County got into a dry cypress swamp and the peat actually caught fire. Twenty days later it was still smoldering in the ground."

Because rain began to fall more regularly just before mid-September, Zentz says, the governor was able to lift the burning ban from every country except Frederick, Washington and Allegheny.

The rain, plus the return of more normal weather patterns for this time of year, has dampened the earth somewhat and generally improved the state's prospects. But Zentz warns: "If we were to get into another dry period, it wouldn't take much to start getting bad fire conditions again."

Five months have passed since the gunfire in the 1600 block of Llewelyn Avenue, enough time for that ragged stretch of East Baltimore to be torn down, the condemned houses erased from the landscape.

Jermaine Jordan, the 15-year-old who died from a bullet in the back, is still mourned. His family had sent him to a Georgia military school to escape the city's violence. He returned this summer and on July 5 became this city's 159th homicide victim.

His accused killer, Albert Sims, is headed for the Clifton T. Perkins psychiatric hospital. The state wants to find out whether the 77-year-old janitor is mentally competent to stand trial.

The killing had sadly familiar elements: East Baltimore; a tormented old man; youngsters treading a thin line between fun and harassment. Remember Nathaniel Hurt? He spent 14 months in prison for killing 13-year-old Vernon Holmes.

Now, there is Sims, charged with first-degree murder and handgun charges. He was the only person living in a crime-ridden block that had been on the city's demolition list for at least a year. The bulldozers came too late to save young Jordan and Sims from their tragic meeting.

The shooting occurred after a group of boys riding bicycles along the street reportedly threw a brick at Sims' 1984 Cadillac DeVille. He had already suffered through three burglaries. Police say Sims grabbed his Astra .25-caliber handgun and fired twice.

Since then, Sims has been held without bail, and there are questions about how well he understands what has happened.

"It's hard for me to tell you what he knows," says his attorney, Mitchell A. Greenberg.

At his Sept. 24 arraignment, Sims cried because the handcuffs hurt his wrists. Greenberg entered an insanity plea for Sims that day. He says his client will be at Perkins for a week or so, then Sims will return to Baltimore's detention center. The entire evaluation process should take about a month.

The trial is set for Feb. 10.

M. Dion Thompson

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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