SATURDAY, April 20, 1963 - BUSIEST DAY EVER
SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, was the busiest day for fire responses in the history of the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, fire service. During the month of April the nation’s northeast was experiencing one of the greatest spring droughts on record. From Georgia to Maine there had been very little rainfall.
With no more than a couple drops of rainfall since April 1, the morning’s temperature was already registering in the mid-seventies and was expected to rise to the mid-eighties mark later in the day.
(Maryland’s fire danger rating on this day was a Class 5 with a fire spread index of 200, extremely critical. It was the worst fire danger rated day in the state’s history.)
As 20 mph winds with occasional 50 mph gusts, blew across northern and west county, brush fires started to break out everywhere. The major fires are listed as follows:
East of the Pennsylvania Railroad right of way south of Rt.#46 (todays I-195)
This fire started around 4:00 a.m. As most fires, along the railroad right-of-ways, no doubt it was a result of a train throwing sparks. Sparks would ignite the the dry vegetation along the east side of the railroad tracks just south of Rt.46 (todays I-195).
The fire was initially handled by Company 32's (Linthicum) E-324 and Jeep 324. Additional companies would be requested. Later it would burn to Stoney Run Road and from flying brands or a second fire, brush and woods started burning on the east side of Camp Meade Road (Today's Aviation Blvd.) and burn between Camp Meade Road, Rt 46 and Elm Road near where the BWI Airport tank farm and airport cargo complex is located today.
(Above top Engine 324 and below Jeep 324 - Photos - Tom German/Joseph MacDonald)
Joseph Angyelof (AACoFD retired Division Chief) was a Friendship Airport (BWI) firefighter at the time. He was also an active volunteer fire officer/firefighter with Company 12 (Earleigh Hgts).
With just seven months on the job, Angyelof was assigned as driver/operator on one of the two surplus military half-tracks converted to fire engines owned and operated by the airport.
(The above Curtis Bay Army Ordnance Depot half-track was very similar to the airport's unit, however painted yellow and minus the ladder. The unit pictured here would end up at Company 13 (Riviera Beach) but was never placed in-service - Photo - Chuck Morris Jr.)
The half-tracks were equipped with four-wheel drive, a 1,000 gallon water tank, a 250 gallon per minute (gpm) pump and a reel of 100 feet of one-inch booster (hard rubber) line hose. The half-track had a large roller installed on the front bumper which allowed the unit to push over small trees.
Just to be on the safe side and mainly to protect personnel from being overrun by a shifting running wildfire, Angyelof wisely placed and extra 100 feet of one-and-a-half-inch attack hose with attached nozzle on the unit.
(Above an airport Crash Truck is being utilized to combat an 800 acre brush fire on the south side of the airport on 3/17/59. Sixteen AACo. engines, two additional from each Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County responded to assist. Photo - Doegen-Helfrich Collection)
Brush firefighting tactics can be tricky. It’s not wise to approach or put apparatus in the path of the fire’s head, which is the leading edge of a moving fire. Unexpected wind shifts make this decision all the more difficult.
A less dangerous tactic is to approach from the flanks or sides of the fire or from the blackened area that has already been burned. Angyelof would later say, “The tactic was to drive the half-track to a fire line, park the vehicle and extinguish what fire could be reached within a 100 feet radius of the vehicle.” Although he would receive some help from volunteer firefighters, he would work most of the day by himself.
(Airport Fires, Saturday, April 20, 1963)
Washington Blvd in Elkridge to Race Road near Harwood Park/Hanover
In an area east of Washington Blvd., near Loudon Ave in Elkridge, a fire started around 10:00 a.m. Fanned by high winds, it worked eastward north of Dorsey Road following a path in the vicinity of where Rt.100 is located today. The fire started out as a Howard County fire.
In addition to Elkridge and near-by Baltimore County's Arbutus, Halethrope and other Howard fire companies; AACo's Company 29 (Jessup) also responded and was assisting in the fire operation.
Howard County had a central radio communications center located in Ellicott City. Anne Arundel County was still three years from a central system. All AACo. communications operated on one radio channel between the stations and the apparatus on the street. A mutual aid radio channel did not exist.
The Jessup fire station at the time was located near Rt.175 and a stone's throw east of the B&O RR. tracks which mark the Howard County/Arundel County line. The station had a two-way radio system that was tied into Howard County along with the AACo. two-way radio.
Howard fire companies wanting assistance from Arundel companies such as Linthicum and Odenton, needed to contact Jessup. AACo. companies that needed to communicate with Howard companies such as Savage and Elkridge had to go through Jessup.
(An early photo of the Jessup Station located on Old Jessup Road. The building still exist today - photo - U-of-Md Hornbake Library)
As a result, the Company 29 station became the communications hub for all the brush fire radio traffic along the B&O railroad line. The fire activity was picking up. Most of the morning Jessup firefighters had been busy dealing with brush fires along Brockbridge Road and the B&O tracks and near Montevideo Road.
It wasn't long before the station received a report that the Elkridge - Howard County fire jumped the B&O tracks to the north of Dorsey and was advancing toward the dwellings and other structures along Race Road in AACo.
Harmans Road between the claybanks and the Koppers Company (today's Harman’s Woods).
Approximately the same time as the Elkridge fire, a brush fire broke out in an area bordered by the Pennsylvania RR tracks, the Clay Banks (old gravel pit with a large pond), Harmans Road and the Koppers Company facility.
Company 32 (Linthicum) units, Engine 322, 324 and Jeep 324 along with Company 33 (Glen Burnie) and other stations responded and were fighting the fire. Clyde Willis, Glen Burnie VFD fire chief responded to the Clay Banks fire in his chief’s car.
(Left - Glen Burnie VFD, Carlos Downs, AACoFD LT Retired, and Chief Clyde Willis discuss Glen Burnie's Clean-up and Beautification project, Circa 1966 - Photo - Maryland Gazette)
Willis was also employed as an AACo. engineman, assigned to the Glen Burnie fire station (Company 33) to drive and operate the fire apparatus.
On his days off when he was not driving for his part-time cab business's, he was the chief of the busiest fire department in the county and on this Saturday, he would assist where ever he could. Willis’s chief’s vehicle was equipped with a radio and he could communicate with his home station, other stations and with responding apparatus.
Harry Zlotowski, AACoFD Division Chief, (Retired) would later share that one of Willis' great assets was his knowledge of county geography, buildings and roads as a result of his years of cab driving experience.
When Willis believed he had enough engines and brush units to control the Clay Banks fire, he was made aware via radio that Company 29 (Jessup) was making additional requests for apparatus to assist with the Elkridge fire. Willis could see the smoke from his location and responded towards the Elkridge/Dorsey area.
By the time Willis arrived in the area, the wind driven fire easily leaped the double set of B&O railroad tracks and was now burning in Anne Arundel County. The fire was headed toward homes located on Race and Hanover roads. As apparatus became available from the airport and Clay Bank fires, units were sent towards Dorsey.
Note: During this time period and for the rest of the day, fire companies throughout the region including the Eastern Shore, Pennsylvania and Virginia, whether called or self-dispatched, were responding to Anne Arundel. Some would comment later that they just followed the large plumes of smoke in the sky.
There was no official account of the generous outpouring of mutual aid assistance that the county received other than the newspaper reports. There were probably out-of-county companies that arrived in Anne Arundel, responded to fires and returned to their home stations without anyone being the wiser.
Prince Georges County sent so many units to Anne Arundel that Montgomery County and Washington DC were contacted to fill stations and respond to the many fires that were now breaking out in Prince Georges.
It wasn't long before the Elkridge-Dorsey fire advanced to the scattered homes and out buildings along Race Road. The drought stressed vegetation burned rapidly. Fuel moistures in the forests and fields were non-existent which greatly supported the conflagration. Chief Clyde Willis was driving up and down Race Road making sure that all structures were covered by fire engines and crews.
Fighting brush fires can be extremely dangerous. As the fire would die down, crews would attack the fire’s flanks, where the fire was low and there was less chance of being overrun and burned. As the winds would pick up and the flames intensified, firefighters would back off and concentrate on protecting structures.
At one of the homes, a rancher on Race Road, Tom German and Sonny Harvey arrived on Jeep 324 and were immediately ordered to report to the rear of the house. The jeep became stuck in the homes septic field, but they still protected the house.
Willis directed other engines and brush units up driveways to protect the homes. A commendable stop was made by all and eventually the main head of the fire was halted at Race Road but several spot fires continued to burn along Hanover and Dorsey Roads. Two homes were lost.
(This hard to read photo story is the front page of the Evening Capital, Monday 4/22/63. The photo was taken from an airplane probably descending to land at then Friendship Airport. The top looking cloud is actually smoke from the Gambrills/Dicus Mill roads fire. The lower cloud of smoke is from a fire along Elevation Road and the power lines)
Gambrills Road to Arden on the Severn (Jumping Rt. 3/301 today’s I-97). This was the biggest fire of the day.
This fire started in the vicinity of Dicus Mill and Gambrills roads. Eighteen- year-old Wilbert Lewis was an active volunteer firefighter at the time and would later become a chief officer with Company 28 (Odenton).
Lewis believes that the Gambrills Road fire actually started in the area of the old Edgewood Country Club that was located on Dicus Mill Road and the fire was a result of burning trash. He believes that a poorly watched trash fire got out of hand and ignited nearby brush.
Due to the wind, the fire spread along with flying brands, creating spot fires, and worked its way to Gambrills Road.
(Company 6, Herald Harbor Fire Station, Circa late '50s - early '60s - Credit to the Photographer)
Earlier, around 8:30 a.m., there was activity at Company 6 (Herald Harbor), a small one-story three-bay fire station located on Hall Road in Crownsville. Engineman Charlie Wilson was backing in Engine 62. The crew had just returned from a call in Company 7 (Arundel)'s area.
(In the photo above of the units in front of the Herald Harbor, this 1949 Dodge Power Wagon/Young 200 gpm brush truck is parked on the far end. It completely burned up on a brush fire near Foxwell Road in April 1962. The next photo the unit is rebuilt with a 1963 Dodge cab and a rebuilt Young body. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
Company 28 (Odenton) was requesting companies to respond to a brush fire on Gambrills Road. Wilson took off in the station's brush unit, Brush 64, with a couple of volunteers hanging on to the back step.
(Brush 64 in front of the station that was built five years later - Photo - Credit to the photographer)
When arriving on Gambrills Road, Company 6 worked with other units east of the road. They were making satisfactory progress until a gust of wind struck and the fire took off in an eastward direction toward the Cecil Avenue and Hog Farm Road communities.
As this change in fire spread occurred, many units relocated to the power line road that ran parallel to the woods line and firefighters were successful in keeping the fire from moving to the south.
Communications and coordination among the fire units was poor, but most understood that the major objective was to protect the houses and buildings located on Cecil Avenue, Hog Farm Road and scattered along the southbound lane of Rt. 3. This fire produced a huge plume of smoke that the could be seen as far north as Linthicum and Glen Burnie.
Fire apparatus on Gambrills Road raced to either Rt. 175 or Dicus Mill Road and then to Route 3/301. On Dicus Mill Road many engines were sent to protect the homes on the southern side of the narrow roadway. The fire now incorporated a large area east of Gambrills Road between Dicus Mill Road to the north and the power transmission line road to the south.
Around 11 a.m., a two - seat bubble canopy helicopter, with skid landing gear, very similar to a Bell 47G model, owned by the Chesapeake and Potomac (C&P) Airways flew throughout the area trying to follow the fires and provide assistance.
The aircraft was staffed with a C&P Airways pilot and Captain George Martin of the U.S. Air Force. Captain Martin, a Linthicum resident, was a liaison officer to the area’s Civil Air Patrol. The pair was to observe and report on the spread of fires and to locate new ones.
A command post had been set up at the Civil Air Patrol HQ office on Camp Meade Road, near Popular Avenue, in Linthicum, just north of the Friendship Airport terminal. As the day progressed and the fires became larger, the headquarters office would become the hub of all communications.
Around noon at the Gambrills and Dicus Mill roads area, after working with dozens of crews that were able to control the raging fire on the south side, along the electric power transmission lines; Charlie Wilson and Brush 64's crew arrived at Cecil Avenue.
As the main body of fire raged towards him less than a quarter of a mile away, the windblown embers were starting spot fires throughout the area. Wilson put his crew to work extinguishing a spot fire that had ignited a barn in the rear of a house on Cecil Avenue. Other engines and brush units were arriving and extinguished or controlled similar small fires threatening other nearby structures.
Prior to 1962, US Route 301/Maryland Route 3/Crain Highway was a single two-lane roadway that connected with New Cut Road in South Glen Burnie and continued south to Bowie in Prince Georges County.
There had been brush fires in the past that started on the west side of the road and had jumped to the east side. Now with a newly constructed separate two-lane roadway that was converted to the southbound lane an enormous wide median strip was created.
Scattered throughout the median strip were commercial buildings, bars, restaurants, truck stops, small farms with houses and out buildings, and crossover roads.
Firefighters were counting on the wide gap to assist them in putting an end to the blaze. To support the firefighters, Maryland State Police shut down both lanes of Route 3 for approximately twelve miles, from New Cut Road in Glen Burnie, to Route 424 south of Gambrills.
As a torrid swath of flames appeared before them, fire engines and water tanker trucks lined the southbound lane of Route 3 from Dicus Mill Road north of the newly constructed Severn Run Bridge south to Route 175. Firefighters were confident that they could stop the fast approaching fire.
However, it wasn’t long before a 50 mph gust of wind would carry burning branches and hot embers over the Route 3 corridor and start spot fires in the median strip and along the east side of the northbound lane. Now most of the firefighting action was taking place along Route 3’s northbound lane between Generals Highway and the old concrete bridge at the bottom of the hill crossing Severn Run.
It would be said later that the smoke from the fires was so thick and wide spread that it blocked out the sun creating an evening like twilight for the firefighters combating the spot fires along the east side of Route 3.
It was so bad that 27-year-old AACo. Engineman Virgil Buttrum, assigned to Company 33 (Glen Burnie) who had been battling the Gambrills fire all morning with Brush 334, and crew, hunkered down beneath the truck as the raging fire “roared” and burned over them on Route 3.
The Gambrills fire was just one of about 30 that Buttrum would respond to that Saturday. Later, when his wife Carroll would ask questions about the fire, Buttrum said, “It was no big deal, just a day’s work.”
Another firefighter who witnessed the fire jumping the Route 3 corridor was Edward "Harve" Woods. Woods who had been a Friendship Airport firefighter for the past seven months, along with Joseph Angyelof said, that he and others responded with one of the halftrack engines and a pick-up truck to the Pennsylvania RR/Elm Road fire earlier that morning.
He would remark that they were very successful in keeping the fire between the railroad tracks and the edge of the Westinghouse Corporation’s parking lot. Woods said, "As more help arrived from area fire departments, we were able to place the fire under control within a couple of hours.”
Around noon Woods, driving one of the airport fire departments 1,000 gallon tank trucks, was dispatched to the Route 3 Corridor. Stopping briefly at the roadblock at Rt. 3 and New Cut Road, he was directed by county police to head towards Dorr’s Corner located at the intersection of Generals Highway and Route 3.
Woods ended up parking the tank truck at Route 3 and Dicus Mill Road and filled brush trucks and jeeps with needed water. Woods would later say, “I spent several hours in this area keeping the 4-wheel-drive vehicles filled with water. I do recall the sudden burst of wind and the fire jumping the highway. At the time, I think we all had the same idea, either hide under the trucks or try and drive away. I decided to stay put where I was and the fire went by quickly.”
The huge Gambrills fire had now jumped the Route 3 highway and was burning fiercely on the eastside of the corridor. As Charlie Wilson and crew started to reel in the Brush 64’s hose line used to protect a house on the corner of the northbound lane of Route 3 and General’s Highway he received a radio transmission report from the Company 6 (Herald Harbor) station.
The station, now staffed by a Grasonville VFD engine and crew, reported that based on phone calls received, the head of the fire was moving east and threatening a number of homes in the community of Cedarcroft off of Generals Highway approximately a-half-mile away.
Please see the Chapters, "Fires Were Everywhere, Saturday, April 20, 1963" in the stories section of this website for the final chapters and conclusion of this story.
Many of you know that I've been researching and capturing files of information as well as personal narratives on the fires that occurred on Saturday, April 20, 1963. I'm still trying to decide if I want to produce a single book or not on the events of that day.
There are still additional fires and personal narratives that I need to cover for fires that occurred later that day. Some of these are the fires that were located on "Jumpers Hole Road near Elevaton Road; southside of Mountain Road, west of Woods Road, east to Lake Shore Drive; Marley Neck Road; southside of Friendship Airport (Todays BWI), from Rt.#170 to Old Telegraph Road north of Dorsey Road along with other fires."
I want to thank the following AACoFD members who have provided me with information over the years and have unfortunately past on to that "Great Fire Department in the Sky," Tom German, Charlie Wilson, Clyde Willis and Virgil Buttrum. R.I.P.
I would also like to thank, Harry Zlotowski and Joseph Angyelof both (AACoFD retired Division Chiefs), Wilbert Lewis (past Chief officer and member of the Odenton Fire Department, Ed Harve Woods (Retired Prince Georges FD and active member and officer with Company 7 (Arundel), and Mike Wiley, AACoFD Lieutenant (Retired) and Nelson Cross for all of their memories and assistance.
Colleagues Chuck Morris Jr. and Joseph MacDonald have provided me with stories, photos and tremendous support over the years and I can't thank them enough.