Winds cut power, spread fires across D.C. area, topple National Christmas Tree

Dangerous winds with gusts of more than 50 mph Saturday fueled blazes throughout the region, including in Laurel, Dale City and Germantown. More than 150 acres of the Shenandoah National Forest had burned by late afternoon.

In parts of the D.C. region, ashes fell from the sky. Smoke was so thick, some said, it felt like dusk at midday. Plumes of smoke could been seen for miles as more than a dozen fires were reported, a situation some likened to wildfire season on the West Coast.

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There were no serious injuries or deaths reported. The National Christmas Tree, however, on the Ellipse near the White House, was toppled by the fierce winds. Damage estimates and exact causes of the blazes were not immediately available.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) changed Saturday plans and instead toured the state by air with aides to see the fire damage. A Virginia official said that more than 100 wildfires were burning in the state. By Saturday evening Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) declared the blazes in his state essentially "contained," if not fully extinguished.

Officials remained on guard late Saturday, even though winds were expected to subside by Sunday morning. For many residents, commuters and emergency officials, Saturday was an anxious day.

In one Prince George's County neighborhood, residents grabbed garden hoses and buckets in hopes of beating back the encroaching flames.

Randy Phoebus, 53, a postal worker who has lived in Fort Washington for seven years, described a chaotic scene: residents desperately fighting the flames as smoke reduced the sun to a dim yellow light. Several homes caught fire.

"If the firefighters hadn't pulled up between the houses, and without the garden hoses, it would have burned more houses,'' Phoebus said. "Assuming nothing happens overnight, they did a great job."

Fire officials knew there was a danger since the National Weather Service had issued high-wind and red-flag warnings, which signal that an area is vulnerable to wildfires.

But as reports of new fires flooded in, fire officials in Maryland and Virginia were understaffed. Prince George's alone brought in as many as 200 off-duty firefighters - about double its regular weekend staffing - to help battle blazes that ranged from small house fires to large brush fires.

Gov. O'Malley said he could not recall "this many brush fires on one day."

Power outages were also an issue. At one point Saturday, more than 18,000 customers were without power in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.

The most stubborn of Saturday's blazes was in Laurel, where a fire started about noon at a mulch plant not far from Interstate 95. The fierce winds, coupled with 30-foot-piles of mulch spread over 100 acres, made for difficult and treacherous firefighting conditions.

"This is the biggest brush fire that I have seen in 28 years," said Al Schwartz, 43, a member of Beltsville Engine Company 31 and one of many firefighters brought in to control the blaze.

Smoke from the Laurel fire forced the closure of both directions of I-95 just south of Route 198. Motorists stuck in their cars complained of reduced visibility and irritated, itchy eyes.

In Laurel's Woodbridge Crossing subdivision, homeowner Steve Beheler said the conditions were the smokiest he's seen in at least 20 years.

"But I'm insured," Beheler, 56, quipped as smoke billowed over his house. "If it comes, I'll just grab the dog and laptop and get out of here."

'Blackened tree crackled'

Fire officials in Prince William County said a pair of brush fires on the north and southbound sides of I-95 near Dale City forced them to close the highway and temporarily divert traffic onto HOV lanes.

Late Saturday afternoon, as many as six fires were burning in Prince William County. A fire in the Buckhall area of the county destroyed at least one home and forced the evacuation of several residences in the area. Brush fires were also reported near the courthouse in Fairfax and near Northern Virginia Community College's campus on Neabsco Mills Road. In Maryland, fires were reported in neighborhoods in Fort Washington and Clinton and at a Burlington Coat Factory at the Laurel Mall.

Firefighters from Prince George's and three other counties also were called to a large brush fire near the Chalk Point Generating Station along the border of Prince George's and Charles counties. The blaze, which began in the morning, consumed more than 15 acres before it was brought under control Saturday evening.

The first of many alarms started Saturday about 6 a.m. in College Park, where three University of Maryland students were displaced after a two-story home in the 8400 block of Potomac Avenue caught fire and burned down. All three escaped unharmed.

In Fort Washington, near the intersection of Gallahan and Piscataway roads, neighbors grabbed hoses and buckets until firefighters arrived. The fire spread across five acres and razed at least one abandoned house, damaged two others and threatened two commercial barn structures.

By late afternoon, naked stumps of house chimneys protruded from a mound of rubble at the destroyed home, while the scorched husk of a hot tub sat behind another. Still-burning railroad ties in the garden gave off an oily-smelling smoke.

"I don't know what happened, not exactly," said neighbor Daniel Gallahan, 53, whose family farmed tobacco in the area's rolling land from the 1800s until the last decade.

Firefighters did not know how the blaze started next door. Gallahan said a family used to run a sand and gravel business there. As he spoke, smoldering embers from a blackened tree crackled, and sirens wailed through the wind.

Meanwhile, in Germantown, Montgomery firefighters battled several brush fires on an area that covered as many as 15 acres near Indian Grass Court with the help of personnel from Frederick County and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Assistant Fire Chief Scott Graham said firefighters were battling multiple blazes and that three to four houses had been "compromised."

In the District, fire and rescue officials reported that parts of the roof of a three-story home in Southeast blew into its second story, causing moderate damage. No injuries were reported. In Northwest, a downed tree and wires caused street closures.

In Shenandoah National Park, the fire began near the town of Browntown on the west of the park and moved to the Jenkins Gap area. "There are high winds - it jumped the Skyline Drive about an hour ago and is now on the east side of the park," said Karen Beck-Herzog, a park spokesperson. She said the park had closed Skyline Drive from Front Royal to Route 211 and cleared all visitors Saturday.

In the District, the National Christmas Tree that blew over was planted on the Ellipse in 1978. Two previous National Christmas Trees had met the same fate. But there would be little time for mourning; the tree was mulched Saturday afternoon.

aratanil@washpost.com harrish@washpost.com

Staff writers Jennifer Buske, Tim Craig, Caitlin Gibson and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

 
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