By Michael Laris and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 6:44 PM
Firefighters across Maryland and Virginia got a reprieve Sunday from the gusting winds that had propelled flames across wide swaths of both states Saturday.
The outbreak of warm winter weather last week - mixed with 50- to 60-mph winds - whipped up and energized hundreds of wildfires Saturday. Leaves and other ground cover, recently blanketed with snow, baked brittle in the unseasonably toasty and dry air, providing dangerous fuel.
"The top surface layers were basically freeze dried," said Steve Koehn, Maryland's state forester. "That's why fires got so incredibly large."
By daybreak Sunday in Prince George's County - which was hit by a string of blazes affecting everything from neighborhood streets to a mulch operation - flames were either extinguished or largely under control, said Mark E. Brady, a spokesman for the county's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Firefighters worked to douse flare-ups throughout Sunday afternoon.
"Every so often, we're going to deal with another hot spot popping up," Brady said.
The causes of the fires - in Laurel, Baden, Clinton and elsewhere - remain under investigation, Brady said. Early and incomplete damage estimates put the commercial property cost at $1 million, not including damage at a Burlington Coat Factory at the Laurel Mall, he said. Residential damage was estimated at $1 million in Prince George's, including homes destroyed or damaged in College Park, Bladensburg and Clinton.
In Virginia, state and federal officials have battled nearly 300 wildfires in recent days, affecting nearly every locality across the state and consuming about 3,000 acres. Seven counties, including Prince William, declared states of emergency as dry brush ignited, often after tree limbs knocked down power lines.
"For the most part, things have calmed down, at least for now," said Bob Spieldenner, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Virginia officials monitored active fires from the air Sunday in Harrisonburg, Louisa and Albemarle counties. "We're really pretty close to a drought situation. That, combined with the lack of humidity and the strong winds, caused a very wide outbreak."
An ongoing blaze that spread into Shenandoah National Park had burned more than 2,000 acres as of Sunday night and forced the closure of portions of Skyline Drive.
In Prince William, firefighters from every district were deployed almost simultaneously Saturday as six major fires broke out. Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin McGee said it was the busiest day he has experienced in his 31-year-career in the county.
Officials said the largest fire, which covered 200 acres in the Occoquan Forest neighborhood, appears to have started when a power line was hit by a falling tree. In a smaller fire in Dale City, a 29-year-old man was charged with carelessly damaging property when a trash fire he allegedly left in the woods spread and consumed 25 acres. Damage in the county was limited to the destruction of one vacant home.
"Most of these were in wooded areas, fortunately," said Jason Grant, a Prince William spokesman.
Usually, a fire covering an acre or two is considered significant, but that standard math was quickly overcome by events Saturday. Koehn's forest service crews, part of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, helped local authorities fighting vast blazes, including one in Anne Arundel County covering 652 acres, or more than a square mile, Koehn said.
"We don't normally get this kind of outbreak statewide," Koehn said.
From the air Sunday, the view of the damage - and what almost happened - was striking, said Scott Graham, assistant fire chief in Montgomery.
"It's just a lot of area, really close to houses. We were very lucky," Graham said. The flames came close to more than 50 homes in the Germantown area, but firefighters took "a stand between those homes and the burning vegetation."
Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.