Storm sparks rural blaze


The sad story seems to be retold in western Howard County every year. A large home with a brick facade and arching doorway -- sometimes resting atop a rolling crest with panoramic views of green fields -- catches fire.

The nearest hydrant is miles away. Tanker trucks from fire departments in Howard and neighboring counties line up at the nearest water sources and begin hauling and dumping water into 3,000-gallon inflatable pools they have placed near the front yard. The neighborhood is saved -- but the home is incinerated.

During the storms Sunday night, it happened again. Lightning struck a $1.2 million home on Foxcreek Court in Cooksville about 8 p.m., sparking a fire in the attic that engulfed the 5,300-square-foot home.

Firefighters from Howard, Montgomery and Carroll counties intermittently ran out of water as crews first tried to retrieve it from the closest source two miles away, an underground storage tank at the Glenwood library, which failed. Firefighters then tapped the Patapsco River, a tank three miles away at Bushy Park Elementary School and a fire hydrant about four miles away in Sykesville.

Bill Mould, a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said that an investigation into the cause of the library tank's failure is under way.

"It takes time -- about 10 minutes -- to set up a draft operation," said Chief Mickey Day of the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department. "You can't beat a fire hydrant."

Adding to the problems, the storm slowed trips to and from the water sources. Also, when the roof burns off first, as it did in this fire, the home becomes ventilated, pouring in more oxygen and further fueling the flames, said Day.

Neighbor Marty Casey saw the lightning strike as he washed his hands at his kitchen sink and looked out a back window.

A few seconds later, Casey said, a puff of smoke rose from the roof and flames appeared. Casey rushed next door to warn James and Iola Smith, who were unaware that their roof had caught fire. Casey's friend, who was visiting, called 911.

"They had time to grab some paperwork and jewelry, and that was it," Casey said Monday morning as the ruins of the house smoldered. "They were amazingly calm, though I imagine that it will hit them today."

The heat from the fire also melted the vinyl siding of another neighbor's home. During an interview Monday, Chaunfayta Hightower thanked firefighters for saving her house and preventing the woods behind the neighborhood from burning, but she wondered what she could do to improve the area's water supply.

The answers are not simple, said Bob Beringer, the county's utilities chief.

In the southern half of the county, the westernmost municipal water system -- storm drains, sewers, pipes, fire hydrants -- is in Clarksville. In the north, the lines stretch as far west as Marriottsville Road. The nearest Howard County hydrant to Foxcreek Court is about eight miles away, in Marriottsville.

The cost of extending the lines is prohibitive, Beringer said.

"In the early 1990s, we put in seven miles of pipe with a pumping system and a small water tank for the area around the landfill, and it cost $15 million," he said.

Several surrounding counties require developers to install sprinkler systems in new single-family homes. Attempts to require them in Howard, however, have failed; homebuilders are required only to offer sprinklers as an option in new homes.

Mould said installing a sprinkler system in a rural home -- meaning without municipal water -- costs about $2 per square foot. He also cautioned that unless the Smiths' attic had sprinklers, it is unlikely such a system would have extinguished the fire, although it might have reduced the damage by slowing its spread.

"If I had a 5,000-square-foot home, whatever the cost, I would have that sprinklered," Beringer said.

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