Think of Leaf Piles as No-Parking Zones, Officials Say

"It's a recipe for disaster if that car parks on top of the leaves," said Capt. Tom Polera, a spokesman for the Arlington County Fire Department. (1997 Photo By Larry Kobelka For The Washington Post)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005

Parking on a pile of dry leaves can be a fire hazard.

Think of it this way: Dry leaves are like dry paper, fire officials say, and can ignite at about 400 degrees. Parts of a vehicle's undercarriage, even if the vehicle has been driven only a short time, can heat up to about 600 degrees.

"It's a recipe for disaster if that car parks on top of the leaves," said Capt. Tom Polera, a spokesman for the Arlington County Fire Department. "With parking at a premium, people will park anywhere, not realizing what could happen."

On Nov. 11 in Arlington, a 1990 Honda Civic was destroyed after a man parked on a pile of leaves outside his apartment in the 1800 block of North Kenmore Street, Polera said. The resident had only driven about 10 miles. When he went back outside a short time after parking, Polera said, the car was engulfed in flames.

"In that case, we were able to see almost right away where it started," he said.

No other area jurisdictions have responded to similar incidents this year, although fire officials in Alexandria said they have had problems in the past with hot catalytic converters igniting leaves.

The problem seems especially acute in Arlington, Polera said, perhaps because the county has numerous mature trees. In 2004, he said, the county collected about 40,000 cubic yards of leaves, enough to fill the MCI Center basketball court 16 stories high.

Fire officials around the region urged residents to find parking spots free of leaves.

Polera suggested that residents collect and remove leaves along streets in front of their homes. Residents should either leave bags for trash haulers to take away or find out whether their jurisdictions have special pickups, he said. In Arlington, for example, the county collects leaves and converts them into mulch.

Fire officials in Northern Virginia noted other seasonal dangers as well, including unattended candles and alternative heat sources.

On Nov. 23 in Prince William County, firefighters were summoned to a house that caught fire because clothing had been left near a space heater, said Capt. Tim Taylor, a spokesman for the county's fire and rescue department.

"That's the biggest thing we're seeing here," he said. "We're asking residents who use alternative heat sources to follow the manufacturer's instructions and not to leave them in rooms unattended or near combustibles. With your other heating appliances, be sure that they're serviced and in good working order."

Officials also urged residents to use caution when decorating for the holidays. Among their advice: Use indoor lights inside only and outdoor lights outside; keep flammable materials away from Christmas tree lights; and keep candle flames a safe distance away from Christmas trees.

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