THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 5

THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr.  (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)

Chapter 5 - The Fire Jumped Route 3

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 outbuildings, 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 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.

Twenty-seven-year-old Virgil Buttrum, assigned to the Glen Burnie VFD, Company 33, had been battling the Gambrills fire all morning with the station’s brush truck, Brush 334, and crew.

At Route 3, the situation was so bad that Buttrum along with his crew hunkered down beneath the truck as the raging fire “roared” and burned over them. 

 

(Glen Burnie VFD's Brush 334, 1958 GMC/John Bean. 250 GPM/300 GWT. Photo - Credit to the photographer)

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.”

 

(“It was no big deal, just a day’s work.” Engineman Virgil Buttrum, four years after the April 20, 1963 fires, working on the Christmas garden in the back bays of Company 31, Brooklyn)

Another firefighter who witnessed the fire jumping the Route 3 corridor was Harve Edward Woods. Woods who had been a Friendship Airport firefighter for the past seven months woke up around 4 a.m. at his parent’s home in Riverdale, Prince Georges County.

A volunteer with the Glendale VFD, 10 miles to the east, Wood’s fire monitor radio was already busy with fire traffic. He said, “I noticed that the wind was up a good bit from the night before.

I can’t explain it, but I was really uneasy about something. The wind, the abnormal warm temperatures for that hour, and hearing the fire activity on my fire radio made me decide to get dressed and go to work much earlier than I normally would.”

Woods reported to the airport’s fire station, located at the end of the terminal’s main center pier (B-pier – the observation deck was located on this pier), two hours early.

After a quick cup of coffee, he started checking out the equipment and made sure fuel and water levels were full on the trucks. The department already had units working the brush fire near Elm and Camp Meade roads.

It wasn’t long before the air traffic controllers in the facility’s control tower called down and reported a second fire along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near to where the Amtrak Passenger Station is located today.

Woods said, “Several of us responded with one of the halftrack engines and a pick-up truck. We were successful in keeping the fire between the railroad tracks and the edge of the Westinghouse Corporation’s parking lot.

As more help arrived from area fire departments, we were able to place the fire under control within a couple of hours.”

At 10 a.m., all units were back in the station and the officers held a brief a planning session and the crews were reassigned. Many of the off-duty personnel reported in and the staffing of the station was now at 35 men.

The older veterans were assigned to the big Aircraft Crash trucks while the newer members were assigned to the brush fire vehicles. Woods was assigned to one of two 1,000 gallon water tank trucks that were equipped with pumps and hose.

Around noon he was dispatched to a call reported to be on Crain Highway near New Cut Road approximately seven miles to the south. Upon arrival and not seeing anything, he was directed by county police to head towards Dorrs Corner on Route 3.

He ended up parking the 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.”