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W.Va. mulch field burns

March 19, 1999

Mulch fireBy BRYN MICKLE and DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writers

photos: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - A mulch pile about the size of a football field caught fire Thursday, spewing thick smoke across much of Shepherdstown as firefighters from three states worked to contain the blaze.

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Flames spread to within a mile of the Clarion Hotel and charred wooden power poles, but firefighters prevented the fire from damaging any buildings.

Fire trucks were called to the Lowe Products Co. behind Potomac Farms Nursery on W.Va. 45 shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday when the fire was reported, emergency workers said.

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"We saw it about 9:30 a.m. and it wasn't too big so we tried to contain it, but then the wind started blowing hard and the fire just jumped from pile to pile," said Lowe General Manager Stephanie Hilker.

Additional trucks and firefighters were called in from Berkeley County along with fire companies from Maryland and Virginia.

Mulch fire"This is the biggest mulch fire I've seen in a while," said Darrell Penwell, director of Jefferson County's Office of Emergency Services.

Wind gusts of up to 35 mph pushed the fire east along the 60-acre Lowe property toward the Clarion Hotel and power lines leading into an Allegheny Power substation on W.Va. 45, said Penwell. A Jefferson County 911 dispatcher said Thursday night no power outages had been reported.

Firefighters burned off a buffer zone that ranged from 200 feet to 1,000 feet in some places around the piles to keep the fire from spreading, Penwell said.

The heavy gray and brown smoke from the fire had subsided by 5 p.m. Thursday as firefighters aimed hoses at burning piles of mulch that were 25 feet high in some areas.

Bulldozer drivers pushed dirt onto the mulch piles to try to create an earthen cap to cut off the fire's oxygen supply.

"We'll probably have crews here most of the night. Mulch fires are hard to fight because you can beat them to death and they'll still burn," said Penwell.

Penwell was unsure what caused the fire, but an official with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources said mulch piles can ignite easily because their centers get hot when the piles decompose.

The threat of fire is higher during wet periods because moisture fuels the decomposition process, said Bill Timmermeyer, environmental inspector with the Department of Natural Resources office in Romney, W.Va.

DNR officials suggest mulch pile operators turn the piles with a bulldozer periodically to keep excess heat from building up, said Timmermeyer.

John Lowe, who operates Lowe Products along with three of his brothers, could not be reached for comment.

Lowe Products manufactures its own mulch from raw tree bark and sells it for the spring planting season, said Hilker.

Workers will have to see how much of the piles were destroyed in the fire before the company can gauge any financial loss, she said.

The company has had a handful of mulch fires since it opened in 1972, but never anything on a par with Thursday's fire, she said.

Smoke from the fire accumulated inside the nearby Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, but the building did not have to be evacuated, said Ken Lowe, Clarion owner and cousin of John Lowe.

Ken Lowe said he sent food and beverages from the hotel to firefighters at the scene throughout the day.

"It's just a shame the wind kicked up," he said.

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