Wind-Stoked Fire Damages Condos

Firefighters works the hoses Monday morning during an apartment fire on Cherry Hill Rd in Beltsville, Md.
Firefighters works the hoses Monday morning during an apartment fire on Cherry Hill Rd in Beltsville, Md. (Kevin Clark - Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A blaze stoked by high winds heavily damaged a three-story building in Beltsville yesterday, displacing nearly 100 residents and injuring four Prince George's County firefighters, none seriously.

The fire started about 8:45 a.m. in a unit on the second floor of a building at the Cherry Glen condominium complex on Cherry Hill Road, authorities said. Several residents said they noticed smoke billowing from the apartment and then watched with horror as flames -- some as high as 15 feet -- began to shoot from several windows.

About 140 firefighters from Prince George's and Montgomery counties responded to the blaze, which raced through the building. Emergency crews worked quickly to clear residents from adjacent buildings while dozens of firefighters scrambled up ladders and manned fire hoses.

Two firefighters were injured when strong winds hurled heavy debris in their direction, blowing one back and causing both to lose their face masks and helmets, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's fire department. Two other firefighters suffered minor burns, he said.

All four were taken to the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center. Two were treated and released, and the other two were in good condition at the hospital late yesterday afternoon, Brady said. Their names were not released.

The fire damaged or destroyed 34 units, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage.

The timing couldn't have been worse for many residents, several of whom said they had just finished putting up Christmas decorations.

Marcia M. Holder, 62, said she was sitting at her kitchen table preparing to make breakfast for her daughter and three grandchildren when she smelled smoke and saw a thick black cloud streaming past her window.

As the family ran from the unit, Holder shouted for her daughter, Velma Brisbin, to call 911 and warn neighbors. Brisbin said she rushed to a neighboring unit and knocked on the door.

"I knocked on it and I hit it and I just felt the heat come off of it, and there was smoke and flames everywhere," Brisbin said.

Holder, who has lived in the condo for 19 years, said she lost everything in the fire. She and her husband, Ashword, 69, will probably stay with relatives in Prince George's while they search for a new home.

It took firefighters about 90 minutes to control the blaze. Fire investigators are looking into whether the fire was related to a power outage Sunday night, Brady said. He said the outage might have caused residents to light candles or use alternative heat sources, which could have touched off the fire.

Joe Blackwell, a maintenance worker at the complex, said he and other residents called Pepco about 7 p.m. after all 300 units in the 21-building complex lost power. Residents were told the high winds had blown a tree into nearby power lines, he said.

Blackwell said a power outage caused a fire at the complex five years ago.

"I feel so bad for these people," he said as he and a cluster of residents surveyed the building's collapsed roof. "It really hurts that they just had to sit here and watch their homes burn."

Bob Dobkin, a Pepco spokesman, said late yesterday that power would soon be restored to the complex.

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