ANNAPOLIS — Joseph Ross sits at his computer, opens Google Maps and types in “Dorsey Road.” He clicks the search button.
When the map appears, he points to the spot where he stood 50 years ago, as he witnessed one of the biggest fires in Anne Arundel County history.
He moves his finger around the screen, pointing to hot spots where the fires spread, engulfing big stretches of land in Glen Burnie, Severn and other areas.
“Just look, the fire ended right here — and before you knew it, it jumped over what is present-day I-97,” said Ross, a longtime firefighting instructor who has researched several well-known Maryland fires.
Ross was 12 years old on April 20, 1963.
There had been hot, dry, windy weather all along the East Coast for weeks. On April 20, massive brush fires ignited from Georgia to Maine.
In Maryland, the fires spread through parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Ross estimates the fire he saw in Anne Arundel burned somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 acres.
He remembers that Saturday well: His Boy Scout troop from Linthicum Methodist Church set out for a weekend of camping. Winds were gusting from 20 to 50 mph. Temperatures were in the 80s.
Before long, a dozen fires were reported in the area. Ross remembers seeing smoke and flames in the distance as his troop leader evacuated the boys.
“I wanted to get out there and help out,” he said.
Memories of the big fire of 1963 have faded. Few have heard of it today. But Ross believes it was a transformative event, leading to changes in the way fires are fought, how fire companies are organized and even how fires are reported.
Two years later, the county created its first central communications system, sending all emergency calls to one location.
Today, it’s known as the 911 system.
“Before that, all stations had their own radio transmitter and could only communicate with other stations,” Ross said. “If someone reported a fire, they had to know which fire station was closest and call that particular station for help.”
Ross has been working on an oral history project about the fire, interviewing people about how their lives were changed.
“People don’t realize the impact this event had,” he said. “It spurred a lot of changes at every level in the (fire) department.”
Harve Woods of Davidsonville can still recall his actions that day. He remembers waking up at 4 a.m. feeling hot and uneasy.
“You could sense something wasn’t right, so I decided to go into work early,” he said.
At 21, Woods was working as a firefighter at Friendship Airport, now BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Before he knew it, he was joining firefighters from around the region, fighting a brush fire near Route 3, along what is now Interstate 97.
“The idea was, let’s put enough trucks, water and firefighters together to contain it,” he said. “Well, that fire had other ideas.”
As the trucks pulled up, Woods watched the fire jump over the road and surround the firefighters.
He found shelter under a fire truck, hoping to protect himself from smoke and burns.
“I wasn’t about to stand there,” Woods said.
He wasn’t alone under the truck.
Ross said Anne Arundel County firefighters learned a lot that day about the defects in their communication system. They had trouble locating firefighters and equipment, and coordinating the dispatching of units.
With no central communication system, residents seeking help had to dial a seven-digit number to reach the local fire station. Each station also had to coordinate its response to emergencies.
In Annapolis, 16-year old Mike Wiley was just starting out as a volunteer at the Eastport Fire Company.
Wiley remembers on the day of the fire, his unit was fixing up an old Army surplus vehicle.
With backup urgently needed, the firefighters decided to put the vehicle into action. “This thing didn’t even have a working radio, but we sent it,” he said.
Melvin Thomas, meanwhile, spent the day ensuring there was enough water on hand to put out the flames.
Thomas was new to his job with the Earleigh Heights Fire Department.
As a pump operator, he ended up at 25 different locations that day. Firefighters would fill 5-gallon portable extinguishers referred to as “Indian tanks,” then walk into burning areas and try and put the fire out by hand.
“Those things were heavy — not comfortable at all,” Thomas said.
Ross said in spite of the lack of centralized communication, firefighters prevailed through force of numbers and creative thinking by individual companies. Units came from as far away as Virginia and the Eastern Shore to assist.
Woods recalls how the Bay Bridge, then a single span, was closed for 30 to 40 minutes at a time to allow fire departments to cross.
“It’s funny: The units from Prince George’s came out to help us — they sent all they had,” he said. “Hours later, the fire was getting bad there, so they had to call for additional outside help.”
By nightfall, Woods said, the fire was contained.
Wiley didn’t get to the fire, but he saw the aftermath. The devastation stopped just north of Severn Run in Millersville.
“Fifteen years ago, I still could spot burnt-out trees from that fire,” he said. “Heck, you can still see them today.”
Woods has been an active firefighter for just over 50 years, and still volunteers. But the memory of that day is still fresh.
“Fires come and go, but some make an impression,” he said. “This one left a big one.”
Woods and the others agreed on something else: Brush fires don’t come any bigger.
“Nowadays, when people tell me they see a lot of brush fires, I laugh and tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Division Chief Keith Swindle, now the county fire department spokesman, was barely 10 years old in 1963. He doesn’t remember the April 20 fire, but said the big brush fires of the 1960s were the catalyst for many changes that improved communications in the fire department.
The fire department added specialized equipment for coping with brush fires, and started giving its new firefighters additional training.
The Incident Command System, which allows responders to relay information in an organized chain, is a more recent development, put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Today, firefighters still deal with brush fires, but on a smaller scale.
“We haven’t seen fires of that magnitude since then,” Swindle said. “Fifty years ago, things were more rural, less developed.”
The April 20 fires had a bigger impact in places such as New Jersey, where the flames left 350 families homeless and injured 87.
In Athens, Maine, the fire caused $1 million in damages — a figure equivalent to roughly $68 million today. About 2,500 acres were scorched in Virginia, according to Ross’ research.
Ross can still remember himself as a Boy Scout, watching the smoke in the distance.
All he ever wanted to be was a firefighter, he said.
“I just want to tell the story of firefighting in this county,” Ross said. “It’s an important story to tell.”