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Subdivision Blaze 'Was Truly an Awesome Sight'

Firefighters Stretched Thin At Conflagration in Charles

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C04

When Wally Danielson's pager started rattling at 4:54 a.m. last Monday to report a fire of an undetermined nature at Hunters Brooke, the volunteer fire chief in Marbury didn't think much of it.

About a week before, his men at Station 8 scrambled to the same Charles County subdivision for what turned out to be the harmless glow from a propane heater curing drywall in a new house. When Monday's "undetermined" dispatch became "brush fire," Danielson still was largely unfazed.

"You see the pictures of Iraq and the war," a Charles County firefighter said. "This was our war. This was our battle." (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"I was thinking it was probably a pile of trash or something," said Danielson, 43, a 27-year veteran of the rural firehouse that deals with about one house fire a month and spends most of its time on medical calls. "That's what I was hoping for."

But not this. Not the biggest fire of his life. Not 20 separate arsons that destroyed 10 new empty houses and damaged 16 others in a conflagration that has left firefighters from Marbury and nearby Potomac Heights station in Indian Head talking in reverential tones.

"It looked like the California wildfires you see on TV," he said. "It was truly an awesome sight."

Now, the fire is in the hands of investigators from the FBI, state fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who are trying to determine who did it and why. But that morning -- handling a task the older guys compare with the District race riots in the 1960s or the La Plata tornado two years ago -- belonged to the firefighters.

"You see the pictures of Iraq and the war," said Lt. Jeff Clements, 22, of the Potomac Heights Volunteer Fire Department. "This was our war. This was our battle."

When they pulled up at the scene, smoke and flames poured out of three or four crackling houses on Cabinwood Court, firefighters said. In rapid succession, fireballs burst out of houses all around them, several said. The burning embers were so thick that George Abell, a retired firefighter from the District, had to flick on the windshield wipers in his water tanker to see.

Typically, if one house goes up, 30 to 40 firefighters may surround it to put it out, he said. In the early stages, firefighters were stretched so thin that three people were trying to extinguish a two-story house.

"We were totally overwhelmed," Clements said. "I knew we were going to need a lot more help to handle this."

About 150 firefighters responded from Maryland and Virginia. Because the houses were empty -- only one family had moved into the section near the blazes -- firefighters decided to douse the fires from outside, rather than risk rushing into the flames.

But it was tough. The narrow roads of the subdivision allowed little room for the dozens of firetrucks, ambulances and police cars. In addition, the 250,000-gallon on-site water supply could pump out at only about 2,500 gallons an hour, they said, not fast enough to handle the demand. Within an hour, the hydrants ran dry, said Potomac Heights Chief Scott Creelman, so firefighters resorted to a convoy of 15 water tankers to haul backup from a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

Within about two hours, most of the major fires were out, but the mop-up continued until late afternoon. When the adrenaline ran out, the slog began: writing mountains of reports, fielding media calls, interviewing with investigators. Clements put off a week of studying for finals at the University of Maryland because of the work, but he's not completely behind. One of his classes for a fire science degree is on arson investigation.

"Hopefully I won't have a problem passing that one," he said.

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