Fire Guts Maryland Zoological Park

Chief: Dan Meredith
Personnel: 48 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: One engine-rescue, one tanker, one utility vehicle
Population: 1,600
Area: 52 square miles

On March 29, 2006, a three-alarm fire destroyed the main exhibit building at a zoological park near Cumberland, MD. Firefighters were faced with a well-advanced fire, a limited water supply and no knowledge of what types of exotic animals were inside the building.

Before the fire was extinguished, over 100 animals died, including parrots, parakeets, a hornbill, iguanas, monkeys, snakes, alligators, rabbits, prairie dogs, an armadillo and several reptiles, among them a 50-pound turtle.

The Tri-State Zoological Park, located at 10105 Cottage Inn Lane, cared for injured and unwanted exotic animals. Housed outside of the building were tigers, an African lion and a mountain lion. The one-story wood-frame building, constructed in 1956, measured 50 by 70 feet with a pitched shingle roof. A 20-by-10-foot octagonal addition to the main structure was built of concrete blocks.

The Baltimore Pike Volunteer Fire Company was dispatched to a reported fire at the zoological park after the Allegany County Department of Emergency Services received a cell phone call reporting the fire at 6:41 A.M. Engine-Rescue 4, Tanker 4 (a 1,600-gallon tanker) and Utility 4 responded with eight firefighters under the command of Captain Rick Ware. Also dispatched on the first alarm were Bedford Road Engine-Tanker 3, Bowling Green Engine 8, Bowmans Addition Engine 11, District 16 Engine 7, Flintstone Engine-Rescue 12 and LaVale Ambulance 371.

The crew on first-due Engine-Rescue 4 arrived on scene at 6:54 and found heavy black smoke pushing from the windows and eaves of the building. Locked gates on the access road to the building had to be cut before the apparatus could reach the building. Engine-Rescue 4 was positioned on side A and two 1½-inch pre-connects were deployed to the front doors of the building. Captain Jeff Imes and Firefighter John Harr advanced one line through the first set of doors into a six-foot-long hallway to a second set of doors. As the crew opened the second set of doors into the main exhibit area, a flashover occurred. The two firefighters immediately exited the building without injury. The second pre-connect was manned by another crew as a backup line outside the first set of doors.

Engine-Tanker 3 and Engine 8 arrived on scene and were also positioned on side A. Engine 8 laid a 600-foot supply line from the road to the front of the building. A 100-foot supply line was hand laid to Engine-Rescue 4 from Engine 8 to establish a water supply. Engine-Tanker 3 supplied Truck 1 upon its arrival. Engine 11 was assigned to draft out of Evitts Creek and pumped the supply line laid by Engine 8. Engine 11 drafted out of the creek with 20 feet of hard suction.

The crew from Engine 8 was assigned to B-side operations with Bowling Green Chief Shannon Adams in charge. Firefighters deployed two 200-foot 1½-inch lines and two 200-foot 2½-inch lines from Engine 8. In an effort to protect some of the reptiles, firefighters penetrated the concrete block wall with a piercing nozzle on a 150-foot 1½-inch line supplied by Engine 8.

Ware requested a second alarm at 6:57. District 16 Tanker 7, Ellerslie Engine-Tanker 6 and LaVale Engine 2 responded. He called for a third alarm at 7:21. Shaft Engine 17 and Ridgeley, WV, Engine 25 responded on the alarm. A special request was made for Cumberland Fire Department Truck 1, a 95-foot tower ladder, to respond.

Baltimore Pike Fire Chief Dan Meredith arrived on scene and took command of operations after conferring with Ware and Deputy Chief Beth Evans. LaVale Engine 2’s crew was assigned to side D with LaVale Fire Chief Steve Ellsworth in command of operations. Multiple 1¾-inch handlines were placed into operation for firefighting and to protect a nearby outbuilding. A portable deck gun from Engine 4 was set up at the northwest corner of the building on the B-C corner due to the narrow space between the building and a lion pen. The lion in the pen had become agitated, so no firefighters were placed into this area.

Meredith requested the Maryland State Police Fire Marshal and an additional ambulance from Flintstone to respond at 7:27. LaVale Squad 2 arrived on scene to refill breathing apparatus bottles. LaVale Engine 2 was reassigned to Evitts Creek to establish an additional water supply. Engine 2 drafted with 20 feet of hard suction and pumped an 800-foot supply line to Engine-Tanker 3, which supplied Cumberland Truck 1 with a 100-foot supply line. Truck 1 placed its two aerial master streams into operation as the fire continued to consume the building. Ellsworth was reassigned as water supply officer and LaVale Deputy Fire Chief Adam Miller took over side D operations.

At 10:27, Hancock Engine 53 from Washington County was requested to the scene to assist with overhaul operations. Meredith declared the fire under control at 11:04 A.M. and released several mutual aid departments from the scene. By 1:05 P.M., additional mutual aid departments had been released as the overhaul operations continued.

Only two reptiles were found alive during overhaul. Two 3½-foot-long alligators survived the fire by taking refuge in the water. Attempts were made to revive other animals by firefighters and members of the LaVale Volunteer Rescue Squad, but proved futile. The last Baltimore Pike engine and crew left the scene at 7:30 P.M.

Seventy-five firefighters operated 11 pumpers; two engine-tankers; one aerial; two tankers; two utilities; two ambulances and one squad at the scene. One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation. Damage to the building and contents was estimated at $500,000. The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental by the Maryland State Fire Marshal.

Firefighters faced several challenges during this incident. Manpower availability at the time of the alarm was a problem. With most volunteers having already left for the day shift and the night shift workers not home yet, a shortage existed. This was overcome by requesting additional mutual aid departments with the second and third alarms. With so many departments responding, initial accountability was an issue, but was quickly addressed.

No pre-plan existed for the building. This initially hindered firefighters in knowing what animals could be in the building and whether crews could be attacked by the animals. Zoo workers arrived soon after the firefighters and advised them of the types of animals and where they were located.

Roads in the area were closed due to hose lays and apparatus positions. This delayed a scheduled 9 A.M. meat delivery for the lions. Some apparatus and hoselines needed to be moved in order for the delivery to be made. When the zoo building is rebuilt, the fire department will have a pre-plan for it.

Lessons Learned

Make contingency plans for periods when manpower can be expected to be limited.
Update pre-plans for unusual or hazardous occupancies.
Have mutual aid procedures in place with neighboring departments.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.