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Fires spread in rural Maryland

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 9, 2001

Wildfires continued to threaten western Maryland homes as gusting winds and a record dry autumn combined to turn the region's woodlands into tinder.

On Friday -- the day after firefighters got control of a 400-acre forest fire that burned within 150 yards of homes in Allegany County -- another blaze broke out some 25 miles away.

Firefighters dug firelines through Thursday night in an effort to keep the new blaze from threatening homes in the town of Corriganville. The fire was burning more than 55 acres of steep, wooded terrain, according to reports from Allegany County emergency management.

Friday morning's 35-mph winds found Maryland in a precarious position in terms of fire risk. Flare-ups continued to challenge firefighters Friday.

Crews that Wednesday battled the blaze in the town of Westernport were put into action outside Corriganville Friday.

The Westernport fire was 90 percent contained Thursday, said Heather Lynch, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

That fire threatened some 20 homes, as well as businesses and schools. Westernport's 2,500 residents said they were still warily watching the flames.

Ruth Shaw, treasurer of the First Baptist Church, said that the fire nearly burned down the home of one of her fellow church members. "But they watered down their house. The kept it away," she said. "Our pastor went out to help because it was a woman alone with her children. Her husband was out of town.

"It looks like it's kindling back up this morning," Shaw said Thursday. "All it takes is a little wind." Shaw said some residents in the town had experienced flooding earlier this year. "We've been through a lot," she said.

The rural town is nestled in steep terrain that makes firefighting difficult, and the blaze sent one firefighter to the hospital and injured 25 others. The fires also ignited a leaking natural gas pipeline, and the gas was being allowed to burn Thursday until the pipeline could be shut down and repaired. Meanwhile a second gas line is serving the town.

Sections of Route 135, the main road from southwestern Allegany County to neighboring Garrett County, were closed.

Allegany County has received less than two-and-a-half inches of rain since Sept. 1, four inches less than average for that period. Since Oct. 1, the area has seen only two-thirds of an inch of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service.

Another Maryland fire was sparked by weapons tests at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. The 600-acre blaze was still burning Thursday but was not coming close to munitions or hazardous chemicals, according to reports from the proving ground's fire and emergency services department.

The department had to deploy three bucket-equipped helicopters that scooped water from the Chesapeake Bay to dump on the fire. Fighting fires at the proving ground can be dangerous because of unexploded ordnance hidden in the swampy terrain, which has patches of dry grass some six feet tall.

Maryland has had more than 80 fires in the past two weeks, said Lynch. Dry trees and leaves are fueling the blazes, and dead oak trees killed in the past several years by gypsy moths are adding to the hazardous conditions.

Forestry officials are urging Marylanders to avoid any outdoor burning.

Similar fire risks have rural Kentucky residents on edge. Fires burning in eastern and southeastern Kentucky are threatening rural homes, said Gwen Holt, spokesperson for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. That state, like Maryland, has faced a dry autumn.

"We had a rain front that moved through western Kentucky but fizzled by the time it moved east," said Holt. "Eastern Kentucky saw only one-tenth of an inch of rain. And we've got at least 10 more days of this."

A wildfire in the Daniel Boone National Forest has stretched from Kentucky into West Virginia. "It never hurts to pray for the firefighters," said Holt. "It's a dangerous job."

Tennessee is also facing a potentially bad fire season. That state's wildfire season stretches from October to May, said Tom Womack, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Eastern Tennessee has had a dry autumn, and insect damage from the southern pine beetle has killed trees that are now tinder for wildfires.

Womack said most of the fires in Tennessee are occurring in a 14-county area surrounding Chattanooga. Most are intentionally set, he added. "We have a bad arson situation," he said. "In some cases the fires have come close to homes and neighborhoods."

The area's terrain is mostly rocky bluffs, making it difficult to maneuver fire equipment, he added.

Since mid-October, Tennessee has seen some 300 fires that have burned more than 11,000 acres.

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