Investigators probe cause of Indian Springs wildfire


Investigators probe cause of Indian Springs wildfire

14 September 2010

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Indian: INDIAN SPRINGS — A Maryland state fire marshal said he has not ruled out arson, nor an accident, as the cause of a fire Saturday that resulted in approximately 100 firefighters and forestry officials from the Tri-State area battling a 40-acre wildfire near the Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area.

The fire began in a vacant house on a former orchard on Parkhead Road, according to Deputy State Fire Marshal Ed Ernst. The area is near the Potomac River and Interstate 70, is southeast of Hancock, and west of Clear Spring and Camp Harding County Park.

No one was hurt in the fire, which was reported around 6 p.m. Saturday, said Chief Mike Reid of the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department.

Declaring the fire no longer active, firefighters left the scene by 1:30 a.m. Sunday, leaving about six state forestry officials to keep an eye on hot spots and finish up a fire line with a bulldozer, Reid said.

A little rain began falling around 2 a.m., which helped dampen the smoldering on Sunday, Reid said.

The fire consumed seven structures, including a main house from an orchard that operated in the 1950s and ’60s, said Forest Ranger Kevin Moore with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The dry conditions caused the fire to spread quickly, Moore and Reid said.

The state fire marshal’s office listed the owner/occupant of the property as Fairview Orchards Landbesitz Inc. A news release from the state fire marshal’s office states the fire spread from the home to three nearby small buildings. Ernst said he was aware of the fire damaging or destroying two houses and three outbuildings, all of which were vacant.

Moore said the land was being leased by P&R Hunt Club, a hunting club.

The cause of the fire was still being investigated, Ernst said. He ruled out an electrical fire because the house had no power.

“I can’t say someone wasn’t in there and threw a cigarette down,” Ernst said. There was trash in the house, he added.

The estimated value of the structures destroyed by the fire was $5,000, according to the news release.

The release described the home as a vacant two-story, single-family log home in the 13200 block of Parkhead Road.

Reid said firefighters let the building burn and tried to contain the fire by building fire lines to limit its spread.

Some people who live on Corner Road were out of their homes for a few hours Saturday night, but were able to return by around 10 p.m. Saturday, Reid said.

At one point Saturday night, some Hancock firefighters and their pumper truck became surrounded by the fire, according to Reid and William Gangloff Sr., president of Hancock Volunteer Fire Co.

Reid said the firefighters could have gotten out, but were trying to save the pumper truck. Other firefighters cleared an escape route for them and the truck, he said.

The crew of a Hancock brush truck had to change a flat tire in the middle of the fire, Gangloff said.

It was Gangloff, who also is a member of the fire police, who spotted the fire and called 911 on Saturday night.

“My wife and I were coming back to our house on Orchard Ridge and we saw the smoke from the interstate,” Gangloff said.

From atop Orchard Ridge, Gangloff said he could see smoke coming from what he thought was Pecktonville, so he called 911 on his two-way radio to find out if there were any controlled burnings in the area.

The 911 dispatch center was not aware of any, so Gangloff drove over to Parkhead Road, where he saw a lot of smoke, then the house and surrounding acre on fire, he said. He radioed 911 to report the fire. Then he called back to request brush trucks after he spotted more acreage on fire, he said.

Reid said the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department and Maryland Department of Natural Resources just signed a fire plan agreement Friday that helped with the Saturday fire.

DNR, through a federal grant, mapped all the structures in the Clear Spring area, Reid said. The area is the largest in the county where people are building houses on the edge of or in woodland, Reid said.

The agreement calls for the fire department and DNR to be available to home builders in the area, making recommendations to protect homes from wildfires, Reid said. Such a recommendation might include clearing trees out to make a house safer from fire, he said.

The agreement also calls for the two groups to work together from the get-go on fighting fires, Reid said.

By state law, DNR is responsible for handling wildfires, but Clear Spring firefighters are often first on the scene, Reid said. In the past, firefighters would work until DNR officials got to the scene and then both groups would battle a fire, but do their own thing, Reid said.

With the agreement, there should be better coordination, as there was at Saturday’s fire, Reid said.

On Saturday, both groups worked together from the start, Reid said. That enabled Clear Spring fire officials to immediately request a bulldozer from DNR, he said. The bulldozer saved fire crews hours in building a fire line around the wildfire, Reid said. Without the bulldozer, firefighters would have had to use rakes and shovels to create the barrier to prevent the fire from spreading, he said.

While there are ponds in the area, Reid said most were down steep banks and had low water levels. Firefighters tried pumping water from one of the ponds, but immediately got silt, he said.

So they used tanker trucks to haul water from a fire hydrant near the former Rayloc building in Hancock, Reid said.

Firefighters never ran into a shortage of water, Reid said. It helped that they were not trying to put out the building fires, but contain the wildfire, he said.

On Sunday afternoon, charred areas still were smoldering. One line of blackened shrubs ran along another line of shrubs that still had greenery on them. There was bright green grass around the edge of one pond.

But much of the area was covered with blackened grass, burned tree trunks and shrubs, and tracks where fire vehicles made their way around the rough, hilly terrain.

In addition to Clear Spring and Hancock, responding to the fire were from fire companies from Halfway, Williamsport, Long Meadow, Smithsburg, Maugansville, Mercersburg and Needmore in Pennsylvania, Bedington and Berkeley Springs in West Virginia, and Little Orleans in Allegany County, Md. The Special Operations unit, air and rehab units, and Frederick County Wildland Fire Crew also responded.

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