THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 3
THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr. (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)
Chapter 3 - The Big Gambrills – Arden on the Severn Fire
Earlier, at the small one-story two-bay fire station, on Hall Road in the community of Herald Harbor, in Crownsville, Charlie Wilson relieved Robert “Bobby” Darr from duty around 8 a.m. Wilson and Darr were Anne Arundel County (AACo.) enginemen and volunteers with the Herald Harbor VFD, Company 6, and worked a shift of 24 hours on and 48 hours off duty.
(Herald Harbor VFD Station 6, Circa 1962. Brush 64 on the far right was heavily damaged on a brush fire near Foxwell Road in April 1962. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
Shortly after starting the shift, a call was transmitted over the radio system for a reported dwelling fire from the Arundel VFD. The fire was located along Rt. 424 not far from the Arundel’s fire station near Stable’s Corner.
Wilson started up the International built pumper Engine 62, and with a couple of volunteers standing and hanging onto the grab bar located above the engine’s tailboard headed towards General’s Highway, Millersville Road and would eventually access Maryland Route 3 and headed south.
Units from the Odenton, Riva and the Bowie VFDs were also responding. The fire was quickly extinguished by units from Arundel and all the other companies were placed back in-service.
(Herald Harbor VFD, Company 6's Brush 64 was heavily damaged on a brush fire near Foxwell Road in April 1962. Photo - (Courtesy of Tom Redmond - Capital Gazette)*
As Wilson was backing the pumper into the station, the Odenton VFD transmitted a call for a brush fire along Gambrills Road near the electric power transmission lines in an area north of where Route 32 is located today. Charlie Wilson jumped out of the pumper and into the company’s brush unit, Brush 64.
The Harbor’s Brush 64 consisted of a brand new Dodge truck cab on an older Dodge power-wagon chassis. The new cab replaced an older cab that burned up completely when the brush unit broke down while operating on a raging brush fire near Foxwell Road in Elvaton only one year before.
The 1962 fire had overwhelmed the vehicle and the crew barely escaped with their lives. Behind the cab of Brush 64 was a water tank, pump, reel of booster line hose with attached nozzel, compartments for tools and a tailboard for riding firefighters. Wilson, Brush 64 and crew headed towards Odenton.
(Brush 64 with new cab, outside of the new Herald Harbor VFD station built in 1968. circa 1970s. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
Around 11 a.m., a two - seat bubble canopy helicopter, with skid landing gear, either was or very similar to a Bell 47G model, owned by the Chesapeake and Potomac (C&P) Airways, flew throughout the area trying to recon 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.
According to Charlie Wilson, the units that had originally responded to the brush fire off of Gambrills Road were very close to extinguishing the fire. Wilson stated that when the helicopter tried to land near-by, the turbulence from the aircraft’s propellers fanned and accelerated the fire.
As the flames increased from the propellers, gusts of wind accelerated the fire’s speed and coverage. The spread and volume of the fire was now beyond the capabilities of the firefighting crews and additional apparatus was called for.
The fire with about a quarter-of-a-mile wide head was racing east towards Cecil Avenue and Hog Farm Road. The 4-wheeled-drive fire apparatus and crews worked along the power lines access road to prevent the fire from cutting through and moving in a southerly direction. The crews were successful in doing this.
All other fire apparatus on Gambrills Road raced to either Rt. 175 or Dicus Mill Road and then to Route 3. 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.
Eighteen- year- old Wilbert Lewis was an active volunteer firefighter with the Odenton VFD. He 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.
Lewis thinks that a poorly watched trash fire got out of hand, ignited nearby brush. Due to the wind, the fire spread along with flying brands, creating spot fires, and worked its way to Gambrills Road.
(Odenton VFD, Company 28's fire station located on Route 175. The company's Tanker 285, Brush 284 and Engine 283 out front on the station's apron. circa 1964. Photo - Baltimore Sun)
At the Odenton VFD Fire Station, Company 28, it was Engineman Wes Hood’s shift; however Bud Chase another enginemen assigned to the station, reported in (his off shift) and drove Engine 283, a 1957 FWD pumper, with Lewis and the rest of the crew to the reported fire on Dicus Mill Road.
It wasn’t long afterwards that they met up with the other crews operating on Gambrills Road near the power lines.
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 the huge plume of smoke that the scouts could see from their airport location.
Earlier northeast of the Gambrills fire in the community of Ben Oaks located at the head of the Severn River, 18-year-old Dan Jarzynski smelled a strong odor of smoke outside of his parent’s home where he lived. Jarzynski was somewhat familiar with fire department operations.
He had been a member of the Anne Arundel Alarmers since he was 16-years-old.
(The Alarmer's bus on the Benton Avenue side of Company 32 with Jeep 324 and Rescue 327. Member David Mentzel standing on the right. circa 1962. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
The Alarmers, established after the destructive A&P grocery store fire located on Glen Burnie’s Crain Highway in the winter of 1958, provided drinks, donuts and sandwiches from a reconverted used municipal bus to the tired and hungry firefighters during major fires.
Jarzynski, now very interested in the fire department decided to take a look and drove his 1957 Oldsmobile out to Route 3 where he believed he could get a better view of what was going on. It wasn’t long before he saw and then followed the large column of smoke.
He would later say, “When I arrived on Gambrills Road near the power lines, you could see a “V” pattern of burned brush from the road’s edge where someone had probably flicked out a cigarette that started the fire.” The fire was now surging through the thick forest of pines, maples and willow oaks.
After Jarzynski parked his car on the west side of Gambrills Road, volunteer firefighter Frank Bell, driving the Odenton VFD 4-wheel-drive brush truck, Brush 284, drove out of the smoke from the power line road on to Gambrills Road with only one other firefighter.
With nothing more on than his street clothes, Jarzynski asked Bell if he needed any help. Bell hollered back “Hell yeah!” And with no firefighting training whatsoever, Jarzynski jumped on the back of the truck and joined in the firefight.
(Odenton VFD, Company 28's Brush 284. 1945 Chevrolet/Oren 500GPM/400GWT pumper converted to a brush truck. Photo - Courtesy of Joseph MacDonald)
Working along the power lines with Herald Harbor and other units, Bell and Jarzynski, with Brush 284, worked their way to a stream near Hog Farm Road. At the stream Bell decided to draft water and refill his almost empty water tank on the truck.
It was at this location, the crew heard the sound of what sounded like a “Freight Train” as a sudden wind shift caused the fire to crown through the tops of the trees.
Bell hollered out, “Get under the truck!” Jarzynski would later say, “The three of us dove under the truck as the crown fire burned over us. It became extremely hot and took my breath away.”
Surprisingly, the fire did not damage the brush truck nor was the frightened crew injured. When the fire calmed down, Bell drove Brush 284 out to another location to get the needed water. The tank would be refilled over and over again throughout the day as the crew fought more fires in the area.
Later in the evening, with the brush truck now parked in a fire apparatus staging area at Dorr’s Corner, Jarzynski’s worried mother who had been looking for him most of the afternoon burst out in tears when she saw him.
Jarzynski said, “My clothes, face and hands were covered with soot, my hair was burned, my eyelashes melted and my eye brows were gone. I was dog tired and worn out and my mom convinced me to go home, which I did.”
* Herald Harbor VFD, Company 6's Brush 64 (a 1949 Dodge Power Wagon with a 200 GPM pump) had a very unusual arrangement for providing fuel to the fire pump. A petcock was installed on the truck's gasoline tank. A gasoline can (stored on the vehicle) was filled at the petcock and the can was used to fill the small tank that fueled the pump.
On 4-23-62, the day of the Foxwell Road fire, Engineman Donny Cole was driving through the woods with the unit and crew. He hit a tree trunk or other strong forest floor debris that broke off the petcock on the truck's gasoline tank.
The leaking tank dropped a trail of gasoline behind the truck until it ran out of gas and stalled and the pump shut down. Fire followed the gasoline trail and with the remainder of the running fire, overwhelmed the crew and they fled the area.