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Water for fires drying up

August 15, 1999|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

The Leitersburg Volunteer Fire Co. covers 50 square miles which have only six hydrants. For fires in outlying areas, its firefighters rely on creeks and ponds to fill their tankers.

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As drought conditions persist, these waters sources are drying up and leaving companies throughout Washington County with no choice but to haul water from hydrants to fire scenes.

In case of a big blaze, going back and forth could take up time, allow the fire to spread and use more water, said Leitersburg Chief Milton Bloom.

With no relief expected from the drought in the coming months, Bloom said he is troubled about the acres of woods that lie in his coverage area.

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"The mountain's like a tinderbox," he said.

Shortly after declaring a Maryland drought emergency, Gov. Parris Glendening enacted mandatory water restrictions on Aug. 4. Rainfall for the past 12 months is about 13 inches below normal in the state and in Washington County, according to Hagerstown Weather Observer Greg Keefer.

Clear Spring Fire Chief Curtis Cline is also worried. His department has access to 23 hydrants and covers a large section of Washington County.

"We're highly concerned about the wooded areas. We're holding our breath," he said.

For now, the company has water sources, but they can be depleted in case of a sizable fire, Cline said.

The Hancock Fire Co. is responsible for 200 square miles, and like other companies it is having difficulty siphoning water from creeks and other sources, said Chief Ernest Truax.

The company has more than 20 siphoning or drafting sites but many are too low to be of use, he said.

In other cases, landowners may be unwilling to part with the water if it's needed for livestock or irrigation, Truax said.

About 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water are needed to fight an average house fire, he said. There is no way of telling how much a forest fire will use, he said.

Last year's mild winter and dry spring made for a busy spring brush fire season, according to Alan Zentz of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The continuing lack of rain will mean more of the same for the fall, he said.

"Unless there's a change in the weather patterns, we're in for a challenge," he said.

Leaves are already falling from trees, he said.

Bare tree limbs allow the sun to permeate and preheat the dry leaves on the ground, making them easy to ignite. The wind can easily spread burning leaves, he said.

Firefighters can do some things to prepare for the fall brush fire season, such as keeping equipment ready and volunteers trained. But the public will have to make the real effort, he said.

People can help by observing burning bans, water restrictions and properly disposing of cigarettes butts, Zentz said.

With less water available, many area fire companies have stopped washing their vehicles and bays after every call.

The Long Meadow Fire Department is losing about $300 each month by not holding car washes.

Long Meadow's area is covered primarily by hydrants and the company isn't having problems there. But that doesn't mean it will get off easy, Chief Richard Roche said.

He anticipates his unit will often be called to help out fire departments in more rural sections of Washington County and Pennsylvania.

For years Long Meadow has relied on Greenbrier State Park's lake to draft water for rural fires.

That's out the question this year, he said.

"It's just too low. A lot of areas are just too low," he said.

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