THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 4
THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr. (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)
Chapter 4 - We Got All We Can Handle Here
Back in the individual fire stations in north and west Anne Arundel County, radio operators were calling for as much apparatus as they could get. There were other fires burning.
Anne Arundel County and Annapolis City stations that still had engines and brush apparatus available sent everything west. Enginemen driving the fire apparatus headed towards the large columns of smoke.
Additional calls were now going out to the surrounding counties of Baltimore, Prince Georges, Howard, Carroll, Calvert, Charles, Saint Mary’s, and counties on the Eastern Shore.
Fire department ladies auxiliaries were summoned to report to the fire stations and prepare sandwiches and drinks to send out to the men working the fires.
Approximately 18 miles east of the Gambrill’s fire at the recently built one-story-brick Eastport fire station, Company 36, on Bay Ridge Avenue, new member 16-year old Mike Wiley was watching the older members working desperately to ready the company’s four-wheel drive brush firefighting truck.
The used truck had been recently purchased from the Lombardee Beach VFD, Company 16. When the various mechanical concerns were repaired, the water tanked filled and the pump tested, the brush vehicle and crew drove out the door and headed towards the large column of smoke near Dorr’s Corner.
Wiley would later state, “They were screaming on the radio for brush vehicles to respond to Dorr’s Corner but our brush truck didn’t have a radio. So we sent the ambulance with it to provide the necessary radio communications.”
(Eastport VFD's Brush 364, 1943 USNAVY Surplus 4wh/Dr, 60 GPM, 435 GWT. Purchased from Lombardee Bch VFD, 1963. Photo - Credit to the photographer)
The Eastport brush unit was not the only firefighting rig working the fires without a radio. A Lake Shore VFD member came up with an innovated idea.
William Rothmal mounted an old empty fuel tank in the back of his pick-up truck and filled it with water. With a portable gasoline powered water pump, some copper tubing and a garden hose, Rothmal converted the truck into a firefighting unit.
New Lake Shore VFD, Company 20, member 16-year-old Bob Herrmann remembers the rig, he would later say, “The make-shift unit worked rather well and came in handy as we battled a number of fires up and down Mountain Road that day.”
To the north, the City of Baltimore could not help. They were having big troubles of their own. When contacted by the Brooklyn Fire Station for assistance, the city fire alarm office replied, “We got all we can handle here.”
Over one hundred brush and field fires were reported in the city throughout the day. A wind driven fire that started at the Dixie Waste Paper Company at 924 Leadenhall Street was now burning in two blocks of row homes. Four alarms of apparatus and equipment consisting of approximately 100 firefighters were battling the blaze.
Fire from the waste paper company “crackled through seven homes on one side of Leadenhall Street, then leaped across the street and burned three more.” As huge clouds of dense smoke choked the area, three firefighters were injured and the fire burned out of control for two hours. Twelve families that lost their homes were being provided for by the Red Cross.
In the Fairfield area near Brooklyn, a four alarm brush fire threatened the Maryland Drydock and Shipbuilding Company along with a nearby lumber yard. Water was in such demand that two of the city’s fire boats were called in to supply the engines from the shore line of the Patapsco River.
With all of the fires, the department was stretched to the limit so the day shift was held over at the 4 p.m. shift change and wouldn’t be sent home until late that night.
In the Dorsey area, the brush fire that jumped the B&O Railroad tracks earlier was now threatening 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. The experienced fire chief was 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.
As German prepared to drive over the grass lawn between the woods and the house, he asked the woman who lived there if he could drive over the lawn? Not quite sure what the firefighter meant by the question, she said, “It would be fine!” After traveling about 20 feet on the lawn the jeep sunk about a foot down into the home’s septic field.
The jeep was now stuck and it would be a while before another vehicle would pull them out. 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.
Around noon In the Millersville 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, Herald Harbor’s Brush 64 and crew arrived east of the fire 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.
Additional engines and brush units were arriving and extinguished or controlled similar small fires threatening other nearby structures.
Near the northeast corner of Dicus Mill and Gambrills roads, just west of where the community of Aurora Hills is located today, was the location of the Blackowicz farm. John Blackowicz’s property consisted of a house, barn, outbuildings, tractors and acres of Tobacco.
Blackowicz’s family members, who lived throughout the county, were summoned to assist the family’s patriarch to save the family farm from the approaching conflagration. William “Bill” Stinchcomb remembers that day as if it was yesterday.
Stinchcomb was nine-years-old at the time. He said when notified of the fire, his mother, Blackowicz’s daughter, put Sinchcomb and his siblings in the car and drove, from their home in Marley, towards the large column of smoke in the sky south of Glen Burnie.
Stinchcomb said that when they arrived at the intersection of New Cut and Stevenson roads, a county police officer, who had set up a road block, would not let the car through.
Stinchomb’s mother tried to explain to the officer that because of the threatening fire, she needed to report to and help out at the family farm. The police officer would not budge.
Stinchcomb would later say, “My mother’s hot Polish temper got the best of her and she really gave it to the police officer, who after a minute or two of the scolding, reluctantly, but gladly allowed the car through the roadblock.” Fortunately, for the Blackowicz-Stinchomb families the fire never crossed Dicus Mill Road.
Later near noon, Stinchcomb watched as a company of Fort Meade soldiers jumped out of the back of an Army Deuce-and-a-half truck and equipped with only rakes and Indian Tanks fought the fire behind the Wilt residence across the street from the farm.
The residence was located at the end of a dirt road deep in the woods south of Dicus Mill Road. Stinchcomb would later say, “The soldiers saved the Wilt residence which was severely threatened by the flames.”
He added, “The army brought in a bull-dozer, and my father, an army veteran and trained in the use of heavy equipment, operated the tractor and cut fire lines through the woods.”