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

Brush fires spread across Prince George's County on Saturday including Laurel, where firefighters put out a fire at the Burlington Coat Factory around the Laurel Shopping Center.
Laris A Karklis/Post
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 10:52 PM

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.

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.

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