Greenhouse fire cause determined
PRINCESS ANNE, MD. - (Nov. 28, 2011) - A Sunday afternoon fire that heavily damaged a commercial greenhouse on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus appears to have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of peat moss, the state fire marshal announced Monday afternoon.
The Maryland State Fire Marshal's office issued a statement less than 24 hours after the building caught fire and said investigators traced its origin to a pile of "sphagnum moss" that ignited "nearby stacks of plastic containers that contributed to the spread of the blaze." Decomposing plant material can sometimes generate large amounts of heat, triggering spontaneous combustion.
The aluminum-frame structure fitted with polymer plastic walls apparently caught fire between 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. Sunday and quickly sent a large plume of black smoke billowing skyward visible at least 10 miles away. The distinctive smell of smoke lingered on campus as dusk approached Monday evening.
Lower Shore volunteer fire companies from Somerset and Wicomico counties responded and knocked down the fire to keep it from spreading to nearby buildings, including the Center for Food Science and Technology, a classroom building on the east side of campus that opened in 2003. An estimated 50 firefighters responded to the call for help, the state fire marshal's office said. No one was hurt.
"We're very fortunate there were no injuries," said Ronnie Holden, vice president for administrative affairs. "We want to thank all those volunteer firefighters who came so quickly and put out the fire."
Holden estimated the building's replacement cost at $6 million, while the tenant had an estimated $500,000 of specialized equipment inside the structure, the fire marshal's office said in its report.
UMES built and owns the 2½ acre greenhouse complex, which has been leased by a Chinese company working to expand its orchid-sales business along the East Coast. The 116,000 square-foot structure opened in early 2000 and since 2005 has been used by U.S. Orchid Laboratory and Nursery Inc. in conjunction with the university's economic development strategy of serving as a start-up business incubator.
University officials contacted their state counterparts Monday about the fire, but no decision has been made about how or whether the greenhouse could be salvaged -- or should be demolished.
Leon J. Bivens, UMES' physical plant director who lives nearby, discovered smoke coming from the structure as he was driving through campus. Bivens alerted two U.S. Orchid employees who were in a warehouse-type office building adjacent to the greenhouse and were unaware the complex might be on fire.
Officials from U.S. Orchid have not issued any statements about the fire, or their future plans. The building's interior appeared to be a complete loss.
Kirby H. Travers, a Salisbury-based deputy state fire marshal, was on the scene within an hour of the initial emergency call gathering evidence to determine the fire's cause.
UMES' Rural Development Center coordinated efforts to bring the greenhouse project to campus, where U.S. Orchid's operation involves growing 50 different varieties of orchids -- most of them the Phalaenopsis variety. The company sells potted orchids to wholesalers from New York to Atlanta and beyond, according to the Rural Development Center.
Contact Bill Robinson,
director of public relations, at 410-621-2355