In 1998, Winfield Community (MD) Volunteer Fire Department Station 14 in Carroll County began upgrading its service delivery effectiveness through numerous equipment and technology purchases. The department is a small, progressive rural department in central Maryland about 30 miles west of Baltimore. It provides fire, rescue, and EMS services to about 15,000 people in a 64-square-mile area, of which about 95 percent is nonhydranted.

Over the past four years, the department equipped all of its engines with five-inch large-diameter hose (LDH) and upgraded all SCBA to high-pressure units with integrated PASS devices and emergency breathing support system connections. The department also placed in service a new 3,500-gallon, 1,500-gpm elliptical tanker to improve its water delivery capability and equipped its primary attack engine with high-volume attack lines, new portable monitors, a remote foam delivery system, and a thermal imaging camera (TIC). The department put much of its newly acquired fire suppression technology to use when it faced a stubborn, subsurface mulch fire at a local airport.


Around 0745 hours on February 28, 2002, Station 14 was alerted to a mulch pile on fire at a small, single-runway private airport. The weather was clear, cold, and very windy with gusts of more than 30 mph at times. Station 14’s initial response included Engine 143 and Tanker 14; units found a large quantity of smoke coming from the western end of the airport’s runway on their arrival. Closer investigation revealed that the smoke was actually coming up through numerous cracks in the soil at the end of the runway. There was also some surface combustion occurring along the southern slope, and that fire was beginning to extend into a nearby wooded area. As additional resources were called, it became quite evident that this incident would involve an extended campaign requiring a multiagency response.

Command 14 was established and a perimeter size-up was conducted to collect better data regarding the size of the underground fire. Command decided to attack the fire using foam to maximize water usage and stream penetration. Engine 143 and Tanker 14 established a water supply dump site using the tanker’s 3,500-gallon dump tank; crews mixed five-gallon pails of Class B foam into that tank.

The plan was to premix the foam solution (0.5 percent) so that Engine 143 could have foam available for every discharge, allowing a foam attack from multiple points. While waiting for additional resources to arrive, Command 14 directed Engine 143 to make an initial attack on the southern flank using a 13/4-inch hoseline to contain the surface level fire on that slope. Severe drought conditions throughout central Maryland were a significant command concern because the airport was immediately adjacent to several hundred acres of heavily wooded state park land.


As crews worked to contain the surface fire, command implemented the plans necessary to support the suppression operation, requesting a forest ranger and Class A foam support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and heavy equipment from several local construction contractors for the anticipated digging operations. Command requested additional en-gines, tankers, and personnel through mutual aid from the Gamber & Community Volunteer Fire Department (Station 13) and the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company (Station 1). Because of the cold and windy conditions, rehab services were a high priority; nearby Baltimore County provided a canteen/rehab unit. A school bus also provided shelter for rehab.

1. Photo by Greg Dods.


At the start of the incident, a major concern was that the fire was at the very end of the main runway. Because the airport was small, it had no control tower; air traffic controllers at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport 30 miles away handled all aircraft communications. The local airport owner worked closely with command to shut down the runway, which, however, did not officially occur until about 20 minutes into the incident. There was also the possibility that a pilot who had not filed a flight plan might attempt to land; fortunately, no such attempt was made during the incident.

2. Photo by Sean Hall.


The two greatest factors impacting this operation were the fire’s underground depth and the limited access to the burning materials. The airport had been built on top of a rather large hill, and there once had been about a 60-foot ravine at the western end of the runway. Over the years, previous airport owners had been slowly filling in the ravine with construction rubble and similar debris. In cleaning up the area, the new owner had used a compost mixture of mulch, dirt, horse manure, and sawdust to fill in much of the ravine. Somehow, an underground fire started deep within this fill pile.

3. Photo by Greg Dods.


As the initial attack was completed, Engine 143 used a TIC to develop a thermal site map of the area. The TIC quickly located several large pockets of fire throughout the 300- 2 80- 2 60-foot fill pile. Command used the TIC to draw a site map showing where the underground fire was located so that heavy equipment could be directed to the correct location. The thermal site map was updated hourly to determine the fire attack’s progress. The TIC proved invaluable to command throughout the two-day operation by providing visual data of the progress being made in the suppression effort.

Winfield’s Engine 141 provided water supply, establishing a tanker fill site at a large farm pond about 21/2 miles away. Engine 141 drafted throughout the operation and filled tankers using a five-inch supply line (see photo 1).

Heavy excavation equipment arrived around 1030 hours, and command developed a plan for digging operations. Command 14 relied greatly on the heavy equipment operators’ knowledge of earth-moving operations. The first priority was to build an access road around the northern flank so that additional heavy equipment could attack the pile from below. The digging operations did not start from the top because of fear of a collapse caused by the large pocket of fire below surface and the looseness of the composted material. A bulldozer built the access road; two tracked excavators were then moved into position at the bottom of the ravine (see photos 2 and 3). The plan was to slowly dig away the pile, spread it out, and then apply foam to it.

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources truck delivered several 35-gallon barrels of Class A foam. Engine 143’s batch-mix foam operation was switched over to a Class A foam operation. Although there was no immediate concern for runoff, using environment-friendly Class A foam improved the fire department’s efforts to minimize the incident’s environmental impact.

Photos 4 and 5 by Zach Schneider.

Once the heavy equipment was ready to begin digging, a 300-foot leader line of five-inch hose was deployed to the western flank, where a portable manifold and two portable monitors were placed in operation. The two monitors were used in an alternating manner, directing 350 gpm of foam solution into and onto the burning materials (see photos 4 and 5). By lunchtime, the combination of the digging and foam was beginning to show progress. However, the sheer size of the debris pile and the estimated fire located beneath it still indicated to command that operations would most likely extend into the next day.

Throughout the day, officials from the county health department, the state water and air quality control boards, the state solid-waste management authority, and the state hazardous materials emergency response team inspected the site. Each of the officials concurred with the fire department’s approach to attacking the fire; they each offered additional resources if needed. As the digging continued into the afternoon, it became apparent that more than just organic materials had been dumped into the ravine. The excavator operators began uncovering truck and automobile tires; construction rubble; numerous unmarked containers of what appeared to be oil, antifreeze, and other substances; and even several large sections of old automobiles.

Although the digging and foaming process was slow, it progressed well, and all of the surface fire was extinguished by late afternoon. Around 1600 hours, command called a planning session. It was decided that operations would be shut down at 1700 hours and that some type of fire watch would be maintained overnight. The decisions were based on the premise that all of the surface fire had been extinguished and that the subsurface fire could be held in check until daylight.

One of the tracked excavators was relocated to the top of the pile (on the hard grassy surface) and dug a four-foot-wide by eight-foot-deep by 100-foot-long trench as a fire break. The trench was then filled with foam, using a 13/4-inch attack line. The TIC confirmed that the fire was contained, and crews began returning the apparatus to service. All of the hoselines were left in place so that redeployment would not be needed the next morning. Command 14 prepared for the transfer of command by briefing the relief command officer, who agreed to coordinate the overnight fire watch effort, which included using a forest ranger to patrol the area.

By next morning, the fire had grown some in intensity belowground but not to a size that required additional action. Crews returned to the scene and continued the digging and foam operations throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Around 1500 hours, the fire was declared out. About half of the hillside had been removed, spread out, and foamed. The TIC verified the temperatures and found no evidence of fire. The units cleaned up and returned to service. The site was turned back over to the airport owner without incident.

Throughout the two-day event, crews hauled almost 100,000 gallons of water and used 60 gallons of Class A foam and 85 gallons of Class B foam. Engine 143 pumped continuously for nine hours on the first day and for more than six hours on the following day.


1. Drought conditions can occur during the winter months, and departments must be prepared. Fire departments in central Maryland normally encounter snow, rain, and cold temperatures in February—not wildfire weather conditions.

2. Interagency response and communications are important when resources are limited. Call for help early, and maintain a list of available resources that can be quickly deployed.

3. Anticipate and plan for long-duration events. In addition to personnel rehab, command must consider such logistics as apparatus refueling, batteries for portable radios and other equipment, and changes in weather.

4. Use available technology to assist the tactical and strategic decision-making processes. Firefighting foam is not just for flammable liquid fires, and TICs can be used for purposes other than victim rescue.

5. Prepare to move and deliver water efficiently. Big tankers that load and unload quickly, combined with the use of LDH, make for a very efficient water-delivery process.

6. Runways at small airports are not usually designed to carry the weight of heavy equipment or fire department apparatus. Contact the airport manager to coordinate safe fire department operations on small runways.

7. Listen to experienced heavy equipment operators. They often can provide valuable insight into how to best accomplish an earth-moving task.

8. Request reimbursement for the use of equipment and expendable items. At large fires such as this incident, those costs can be significant to a small rural department. Although volunteers may provide the staffing, costs include equipment fuel, firefighting foam, and wear and tear on the pumping apparatus. Remember, you won’t get what you don’t ask for!

MARK E. DAVIS is the training officer for the Winfield Community (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in state and local government from the University of Maryland. Davis is a career captain with the Montgomery County (MD) Division of Fire and Rescue Services and a state-certified Level II instructor.

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