It was a terrible ending to a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend for the University of Maryland’s Eastern Shore campus as a fire of unknown origin heavily damaged a commercial greenhouse Sunday on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus that is leased by a private company to grow orchids. Leon J. Bivens, UMES’ physical plant director who lives nearby, saw smoke coming from the structure on the east side of campus as he was driving casually through campus around 2:40 p.m. Sunday. After calling 9-1-1 to report what he discovered and then contacting campus security, Bivens circled the building to see if anyone was inside.
Bivens said two employees of U.S. Orchid Laboratory and Nursery Inc. were in a warehouse-type office building adjacent to the greenhouse and apparently were unaware a fire might be spreading through the complex.
Six volunteer fire companies responded to the blaze: Princess Anne, Mt. Vernon, Fairmount, Deal Island, Allen and Crisfield. Crisfield and Princess Anne dispatched two large extension ladder trucks so firefighters could contain the fire by spraying water on the roof.
“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. It’s impressive to watch them do their job in such a professional and efficient manner.”
A plume of thick, black smoke was visible to north and southbound motorists traveling along U.S. Rt. 13 as far away as Pocomoke City and Fruitland.
The building’s interior appeared to be a complete loss, but it was unclear as dusk approached Sunday how extensive the damage was to the aluminum-frame and polymer-plastic-walled structure.
K.H. Travers, a Salisbury-based state fire marshal, was on the scene within an hour of the emergency call gathering evidence to determine the fire’s cause. No one was willing to speculate what might have started the fire, however.
UMES built and owns the 116,000 square-foot greenhouse that occupies about 2½ acres east of the Food Science and Technology Center. It opened in early 2000 and since 2005 has been leased to U.S. Orchid as part of the university’s economic development strategy of serving as a start-up business incubator.
The Rural Development Center at UMES was instrumental in bringing 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.
Holden estimated that if the complex had to be demolished and rebuilt, the replacement cost could be nearly $6 million, which would include equipment used by the tenant. He said he would be contacting state officials and insurance representatives this week to notify them of the fire.
Holden also said he immediately alerted a U.S. Orchid manager with whom he has regular contact and anticipated the company would dispatch someone to visit the site within a day or two to assess the damage.
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