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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

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.

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