By Jessica Anderson, Frederick N. Rasmussen and Ed Gunts, The Baltimore Sun
High winds fanned flames that sent hundreds of firefighters from all over the Baltimore region to more than a dozen blazes Saturday, left thousands without power and water, and forced a section of Interstate 95 to close for hours.
Flames scorched hundreds of acres of a remote section of Anne Arundel County, south of Odenton, where more than 100 firefighters expected to still be battling the five-alarm blaze Sunday morning.
Capt. James Rostek, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, called it "absolutely one of those totally, out of the ordinary" situations.
"You don't see this every day," he said of the region's numerous blazes.
Laurel’s director of emergency services announced the city was “clear of
danger” shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday after firefighters and other
responders spent the day fighting a brush fire that spread
rapidly as high winds ripped through the area.
In a press release sent out by the city, Director of Emergency Services Martin Flemion also said the city had closed its Emergency Operations Center at 9 p.m.
“The high wind warning has been lifted and thanks to the hard work of the area firefighters, first responders and volunteers, the brush fires have been contained,” Flemion said in a press release.
Firefighters battled a blaze that encompassed more than 100 acres, originally extending east from the Fairlands Aquatic and Sports Complex, on Old Gunpowder Road, to I-95. Later in the day, the fire spread across I-95, and more fire units were called for assistance from as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as southern Virginia.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state had "more brush fires than I can ever remember on one day."
O'Malley spoke with reporters in Richmond, Va., before giving his first major address as the head of the Democratic Governors Association.
O'Malley said the response was "really good" and noted that a number of different counties worked closely together.
Fire equipment from as far as the Eastern Shore was used to fight blazes in Prince George's County. "It was not a bad way to make sure the mutual aid agreements work," he said.
The fires were buffeted by strong gusts of wind, which reached up to 48 mph at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. The highest was 63 mph in Frederick County late Friday night.
Stephen Konarik, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that the area was vulnerable to fires not only because of the winds but also the dry ground. These dry conditions, combined with the high winds, put the area at high risk for spread of fire, he said. Winds were expected to diminish to 40 mph to 50 mph overnight and then drop to 10 mph 15 mph after sunrise Sunday.
Maryland was part of a large area that experienced high winds, from North Carolina to southern New England, he said.
In Washington, the 42-foot-tall National Christmas Tree, located between the White House and South Lawn for more than 32 years, snapped at its base Saturday.
Thousands of customers were without power in the Baltimore region, according to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Rob Gould. A State Highway Administration spokesman warned of numerous street lights going dark Saturday night out because of power outages. And tens of thousands of homes and businesses along the Reisterstown Road and Liberty Road corridors were without water service as a result of wind-related power outages, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman with the Department of Public Works.
Throughout Saturday, fire officials in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Prince George's counties raced to more than a dozen brush fires throughout the area.
"I don't recall if we've seen anything of this magnitude," Howard County Assistant Fire Chief John Butler said.
One of the brush fires closed Interstate 95 in Prince George's near the Capital Beltway for hours Saturday afternoon. The lanes reopened in the early evening.
In addition, Route 40 in Rosedale in eastern Baltimore County was closed for several hours as firefighters battled a three-alarm fire that began at the Strong Arm Bail Bonds, Baltimore County police said.
About 100 firefighters battled the five-alarm brush fire covering multiple square miles in Odenton, southeast of Fort Meade.
Firefighters were called about 11 a.m. to the area of Conway and Bragers roads, where the flames "rapidly progressed," Rostek said, but "the humidity, the high winds, and rough terrain" kept firefighters at the scene overnight.
No homes had been destroyed, and there were no forced evacuations, but fire officials planned to "cut fire lines" with a bulldozer to protect homes. Firefighters planned to stop fighting the blaze once it got dark, but Rostek said the department would "maintain a presence all night."
More than a dozen people, including one firefighter and one police officer, were taken to area hospitals for minor injuries in other incidents.
Twelve residents and staffers were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, according to WJZ-TV, after the Holland Manor assisted-living facility in Riderwood in Baltimore County was evacuated for a three-alarm fire Saturday morning.
The historic home in the 800 block of Landrake Road had been known as Bush Manor for years. During the 1920s, it had been part of the estate of Baltimore-born silent movie star Francis X. Bushman, who starred in the 1926 classic "Ben Hur."
Fire officials did not know a damage estimate Saturday.
Baltimore County firefighters also battled a blaze on the west side at a home on Gores Mill Road that turned into a multi-alarm 5-acre brush fire. No injuries were reported.
In Howard County, firefighters were called just before midnight Friday to a single-family home near the 6300 block of Loudon Ave. in Elkridge, where residents were trapped inside, officials said.
Nine adults and an infant escaped, with two adult males jumping from the second floor as emergency units arrived on the scene.
One man was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center with non-life-threatening injuries while a Howard County police officer was taken to Howard County General Hospital for smoke inhalation.
Officials said the heavy winds fanned the fire, which engulfed and heavily damaged the building. Approximately 60 firefighters from Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties brought it under control in about an hour.
In Anne Arundel County, one firefighter was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries from a two-alarm house fire in the 4700 block of Bayfields Road in Galesville late Friday.
Just north of Bel Air, in the Marywood community in Harford County, a power line snapped, setting fire to grass and leaves, which spread with the strong winds, but no injuries were reported.
Konarik of the weather service said that the high winds were caused by two weather systems coming close to each other — a powerful low-pressure system moving out of New England and a strong high-pressure system moving into the Great Lakes area. When there are two such different weather systems close together, he said, "it causes the winds to be quite strong."
But despite the numerous problems for local fire departments, Kevin Witt, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the strong wind "isn't too uncommon for February, March." He said the timing of two weather systems, combined with the warmer air rising, merely prolonged the strong winds.
The strong gusts also wreaked havoc for utility officials.
Residents of North and Northwest Baltimore lost water service Saturday after the Pikesville and three other pumping stations in Cromwell, Guilford and Towson were affected earlier in the day, but power to those stations was restored by Saturday evening. Power to the Pikesville station wasn't restored until Saturday night. Residents in the Pikesville, Randallstown, Reisterstown, Owings Mills, Mays Chapel, Glyndon and points in between were asked to conserve water until 6 a.m. Sunday, so that water storage towers could be replenished.
BGE opened its storm center in Woodlawn to deal with any outages or emergencies associated with the powerful winds, and about 750 linemen and tree crews were on alert, Gould said.
"The obvious challenge is sending up crews in buckets when the winds are 30 mph or 40 mph," Gould said. "It can make the work very challenging."
Melanie Dzwonchyk and Gwendolyn Glenn of the Laurel Leader, Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey, the Associated Press and The Aegis contributed to this article.