THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 7
THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr. (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)
Chapter 7 - Elvaton Road - The Power Lines
When Chief Willis arrived at the three-story, wood and brick, five- bay Glen Burnie VFD, Company 33, station located on Central Avenue, the place looked like a “disaster area.”
(The Glen Burnie VFD, Company 33, Fire Station. There were three additional bays on the Central Avenue side of the building. circa 1955. Photo - University of Maryland - Maryland Archives)
The Red Cross had set up a shelter in the station and was temporarily housing and feeding the families that had fled their homes throughout the area. Engines from Prince Georges County and the Eastern Shore were lined up along Central Avenue awaiting dispatch to other calls.
Around 2 pm, Willis responded to a large brush fire burning along the power lines between Crain Highway and Elvaton Road.
Earlier on Saturday morning, Nelson Cross was busy helping a friend repair a car. As a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter with the Glen Burnie VFD, Company 33, Cross was aware of the severe forest fire conditions and figured that on a Saturday with people off of work and kids out of school the possibility of brush fires would dramatically increase.
During the 1960s, most volunteer fire stations throughout the state had large sirens installed on the roofs of their buildings or on a nearby tower.
When a fire call was received, the siren would sound and alert the volunteers to respond to the station. When activated from the station’s “watch room,” the sirens would wail loudly for about four-six blast with four-second intervals.
The Glen Burnie VFD did not have a siren; it had a “Fog Horn.” When alerted for a fire, a member would activate the horn, which would blow a hi-lo sounding horn numerous times. On a calm day the horn could be heard as far north as the community of Linthicum six miles away.
Cross would later say, “All morning, while working on the car, we heard sirens from responding fire trucks traveling in every direction. The Fire “horn” at Glen Burnie was sounding constantly.” Finally Cross decided to go to the firehouse and his friend tagged along.
When the pair arrived at the station, Engineman Virgil Buttrum, his face, hands and gray uniform covered with soot, pulled up on the Central Avenue side ramp with Brush 334.
As a tired firefighter pulled off pieces of pine cone branches, lying on top of the truck’s cab, hood and bumpers; others filled the brush truck’s 60 gallon water tank and one of the riding firefighters who had had enough, was replaced by Cross.
Moments later, Buttrum, Cross, Brush 334 and the rest of the crew responded to another call. For the next several hours they worked at numerous brush fires. Cross said, “We responded to many small but serious fast moving fires in the Glen Burnie and Marley areas.”
In between fires they would fill up with water from hydrants along the way. Cross recalls that they only stopped once for fuel at a gas station.
Brush 334 was a GMC built two-ton chassis truck equipped with four-wheel drive and with a John Bean High Pressure Pump with two reels of rubber hose each attached to a “gun” shaped nozzle.
Glen Burnie volunteers installed a “ground sweep” pipe arrangement under the front bumper that sprayed high pressure water out in front of the truck as it maneuvered through areas with low flame or hot embers.
Cross would later say, “With the right driver, Brush 334 was extremely effective on brush and woods fires – and Buttrum was the right driver!”
After responding to about 10 different calls, Brush 334 was requested to respond to a large brush fire burning near Elvaton Road. Cross believes that the fire started in an area where the Hidden Woods apartment complex is located today.
He said, “A large fire was roaring through the woods in a south easterly direction and was bearing down on the power line road that ran through the area.
When Brush 334 and crew arrived in the vicinity of Elvaton Road and the power line road about 20 engines and brush vehicles were assembled there. The plan was to line the fire apparatus along the power line clearing and stop the fire there.”
(The photo taken from a plane landing at Friendship International Airport reveals two major fires that burned acres of woods on Saturday, April 20, 1963. The smoke at the top of the photo is the Gambrills Road - Arden on the Severn Fire. The lower column of smoke is the Elvaton Road Fire. Photo - Evening Capital)
The power line road was rough and although a few engines could negotiate it, mostly brush trucks, jeeps and smaller vehicles were sent to the clearing. The main force of engines and tankers lined up along Elvaton Road.
Cross remembers some of the Prince Georges County companies operating along the power lines such as the Clinton VFD and the all African-American staffed Chapel Oaks VFD.
Cross described the scene, “As the firefighters and apparatus took their positions along the power line road, the plume consisting of black, gray and huge amounts of white smoke approaching us steadily grew larger until it seemed bigger than weather clouds.
When the flames approached, we could hear crackling and then the fire roared like the sound of a jet engine.”
The firefighters could feel the extreme heat of the wind driven fire as it reached the edge of the clearing. The volumes of heavy smoke turned the sunny day light into twilight and the flames caused Pine trees to explode with the sound of shotgun blasts.
Firefighters prepared theirselves with hand held hose lines. Indian Tanks and rakes were cast aside as they would be useless. What minutes ago looked like a masterful preparation for an aggressive attack on the fire was now turning into a defensive worst case scenario.
Cross said, “A huge gust of wind lifted the fire over us, then swirled it down on top of us. I don’t know what the others did, but I hit the ground, turned on my back and directed the stream of water from my hose line straight up in the air for protection.”
In the power line corridor, it was as dark as night. Looking up through the smoke,” the sun looked like a brown disc hovering in the sky.” “Within a few minutes,” said Cross, “I could hear the engine on the brush truck revving at a high speed, a tell-tale sign that the truck’s water tank was empty. It seemed like an hour but in minutes it was over.”
As the smoke thinned out, the Brush 334 crew slowly started to recover and regroup. The fire past over them like they were never there. Fortunately no one was injured and no equipment was lost.
Cross stated, “The event happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be scared, but afterward I shook like a leaf. All of us were speechless – none of us had ever seen anything close to what had just happened."
"The plan then was to try to get in front of the fire again at another location and attempt another stop, but for unknown reasons we never made it there.”
The fire, now south of the power line clearing, continued to move east toward the area of Elvaton and Foxwell roads – The same area where Herald Harbor had lost their brush truck the year before.
It would take a large number of fire companies, many from Prince Georges County, a few hours to place the fire under control.
When Cross arrived back at the station later in the evening his car repair friend was covered with soot and ashes.
Apparently, he had jumped on one of the engines and was pressed into service. When Cross asked him what he had done on the fires, all he could say was, “I can’t believe it.” None of them could.
Earlier that morning, at the Earleigh Heights VFD, Company 12, fire station, Engineman Melvin Thomas had just finished a hearty pancake breakfast in the second floor kitchen of the two-story five-bay brick building located at the northeast corner of Ritchie Highway and Earleigh Heights Road when “all hell broke loose.”
Around 10 a.m. the 23-year-old Thomas with less than four months on the job, started up the 1948 Diamond “T” 500 gallon per minute (GPM) pumper, designated Engine 123 and with a crew on board responded to a report of a fire on Jumpers Hole Road.
(Earleigh Heights VFD, Engine 123, 1948 Diamond T/Oren pumper, 500 GPM/800 GWT. Affectionally designated the "Big Diamond T." Photo - Courtesy of Joseph MacDonald)
Thomas and crew would respond to over 25 different locations between Elvaton, Millersville, and Severna Park and throughout the Jumpers Hole Road corridor.
He would later state, “I don’t believe I pumped one gallon of water all day, they were just stand-by responses, watch this house, protect this barn and don’t let the fire jump this road types of calls.”
Although Thomas may not have pumped a large quantity of water, his crew of firefighters was hustling amongst the fire lines carrying the heavy Indian Tanks of water and pumping the hand nozzles to knock down the speedy ground fire.
Earleigh Heights VFD member 16-year-old Jack Reckner remembers the day well. He said that their first call of many was a brush fire on Jumpers Hole Road.
Reckner and his crew were so dogged tired by the afternoon, they were drinking the water from their metal tanks. He would later say, “It tasted delicious, but it’s a wonder we weren’t all killed by dysentery.”
In the afternoon Thomas remembers that an engine from Carroll County Reese & Community VFD had set up a drafting operation at a pond/stream located on Obrecht Road near Jumpers Hole Road.
Engines with empty water tanks were lined up at this location to be replenished in order to return to the fire fight.
According to Thomas, some of the county and state police officers played a dual role. When they were not directing traffic or evacuating homes they helped fight the fires.
At the Elvaton Road brush fire, Anne Arundel County (AACo.)Police Detective Herbert Beall, hopped on a bull dozer and started plowing fire lines to cut off the rapid approaching fire from the tinder dry brush. Thomas said, “I have no idea where the bull dozer came from.”
On Thomas’ last fire of the day in the Packtown area off of Whites Road in Severna Park, he observed state trooper Leeston Booker, with an Indian Tank strapped to his pack attacking a small field fire.
Thomas, Reckner and the remainder of the Engine 123 crew would not arrive back to the fire station until after 7 p.m.