THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 2
THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr. (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)
CHAPTER 2 - Clay Banks, Elkridge and Brockbridge Road
Fire Chief Clyde Willis, Glen Burnie VFD, Company 33, responded to the Clay Banks fire in his chief’s car. Willis was also employed as an Anne Arundel County (AACo.) engineman, assigned to Company 33 to drive and operate the fire apparatus.
But on his days off he was the chief of the busiest fire department in the county and on this Saturday he would assist wherever 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.
(Chief Clyde Willis, on the right, with Lieutenant Carlos "Butch" Downs, discussing where to place planters during Glen Burnie Clean-up day, circa early 1960s. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
Another firefighter who remembers the Clay Bank’s fire was Tom German. German, an active volunteer with the Linthicum department, Company 32, was a newly hired AACo. engineman assigned to the Cape Saint Claire VFD, Company 19.
On Saturday morning, wearing his dress-blues which consisted of a light blue short-sleeve shirt with the triangular “Engineman” patch on the right shoulder and heavy blue wool pants was relieved at the “Cape” by Engineman Jack “Pope” Morgan.
In the 1960s until 1978, enginemen and later county firefighters were required to wear their issued dress blues to and from work. Once at work they changed into their gray work uniforms.
(AACo. Enginemen's shoulder patch worn on their dress blues and gray work shirts during the 1960s)
In the mornings after leaving the "Cape" German typically stopped by Station 32 to catch up on the latest fire department news and gossip.
On this Saturday when German arrived at the Linthicum station, Raymond W. Smith, engineman and volunteer fire captain ordered German and, another volunteer, Sonny Harvey, to respond with Jeep 324 to the Clay Banks fire.
A few minutes later Jeep 324, and German still in his dress blues, along with Harvey were responding with red blinking lights and siren south on Camp Meade Road to the Clay Banks, seven miles away.
(Linthicum VFD, Company 32's Jeep 324. 1950 Willys/10 GPM/65 GWT. Placed in-service circa 1959. Photo - Courtesy of Joseph MacDonald)
The rear parking lot of the Koppers Company, located on Harmans Road provided a unique fire break and apparatus staging point for the Clay Banks fire that started along the west side of the Pennsylvania railroad tracks.
German found a dirt road that ran parallel with the tracks and worked his way into the fire. The heavy wind actually controlled the fire keeping it boxed in between the parking lot, the railroad tracks and east of Harmans Road.
When Chief Clyde Willis believed he had enough engines and brush units to control the Clay Banks fire, he was made aware via radio that the Jessup VFD was making requests for apparatus to assist Elkridge in Howard County.
In 1963 there was no fire department central communications system in Anne Arundel County. All stations had their own radio transmitter and could only communicate with other county fire stations and apparatus on the street. If someone reported a fire, they had to know which fire station was closest and call that particular station for help.
There was no mutual aid communications between counties. If the Linthicum VFD needed to contact the Elkridge VFD, approximately seven miles to the west in Howard County, they had to communicate with the Anne Arundel County Jessup VFD station, Company 29.
Company 29, was equipped with a Howard County radio. And if the Elkridge VFD needed to contact the Linthicum VFD, Howard County Fire Department Communications had to radio the Jessup station to transmit the information.
The Elkridge fire which started along Washington Boulevard had now, assisted by strong winds, spread in an easterly direction through the community of Harwood Park into a wooded area north of the Dorsey Speedway about a quarter mile north of Dorsey Road.
Firefighters from Elkridge, Jessup, Savage, Ellicott City, Arbutus and Halethorpe were doing a commendable job protecting the threatened homes in the little community south of Loudon Avenue from the swift moving flames.
By the time Willis arrived in the area, the wind driven fire easily jumped the double set of Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad tracks separating Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
The fire was now headed toward homes located on Race and Hanover roads. As apparatus became available from the airport fire they were sent towards Elkridge.
(Jessup VFD Fire Station, located on Old Jessup Road was a "stone's throw" from the Howard/Anne Arundel County boundary line. circa 1950s. Photo - University of Maryland, Maryland Room, College Park)
The Jessup VFD was extremely busy. At the time, the one story brick four-bay fire station was located on Old Jessup Road a “stone’s throw” from the B&O railroad tracks.
Before the Maryland City VFD went into service in January 1968 and later, the Harmans-Dorsey station in late 1974, the Jessup VFD’s first-due responsibility consisted of a large area.
Jessup, was not only the lynch pin of communications between Howard and Anne Arundel fire companies, its officers were trying to coordinate a multitude of fires. When the Elkridge brush fire jumped the railroad tracks, it became Jessup’s’ fire to command.
There were other brush fires breaking out along the railroad tracks in the vicinity of Montevideo Road and a larger fire was taking shape in a wooded and swampy area of off Brock Bridge Road in Annapolis Junction.
Tom German remembers being dispatched from the Clay Banks fire to the Brock Bridge Road fire, eleven miles southwest. After arriving on location and working the fire lines with Jeep 324 for about a half-hour, the crew was requested to pull a D-9 State Forestry dozer that became bogged down in the wet ground near the Little Patuxent River.
The valiant attempt to pull out the heavy dozer worked at first as the tractor slowly rose from the muck. However before too long, the impatient dozer operator gunned the tractor’s mighty engine.
As a result of the dozer operator's decision, the cable attached to the tractor and to the winch-cable-drum on Jeep 324 snapped from the added tension. German and Harvey coiled up the broken cable and left the fire lines. A larger vehicle would be needed to pull out the dozer.
Dispatchers manning the fire station radios were now screaming for jeeps to report to Race Road. As German drove the jeep to access Brock Bridge Road, he hit a large bump and reversed one of the springs in the rear of the jeep.
The team was able to drive to a service station on Route 198, Fort Meade Road, and the jeep was placed on a lift and repaired. German, Harvey and Jeep 324 with a load of water, a repaired spring and a busted cable line, drove onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in route to Race Road, eight miles to the north.