The very small fire was at the White House, in a room next to the Oval Office, and the response from the District Fire Department proved one thing: There are no small fires at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
A truck with a tower ladder, assigned exclusively to rescue President Bush from the residential quarters, was poised and ready. Two vans carrying Secret Service canine units sped to the scene.
To round out yesterday's scene, add a hazardous-materials unit, two command posts, a medical unit, about a dozen fire trucks, a battalion of fire chiefs, 55 firefighters and some very confused tourists.
As it turned out, the president and Mrs. Bush were spending the weekend at the presidential retreat in Camp David, eliminating the first priority of any fire commander responding to the White House. That left only fighting the little fire, as neatly as possible.
Deputy Fire Chief James E. Gallagher said the small, smoky blaze began when a worker, using a blowtorch to strip paint from a window frame in the West Wing, ignited rotted wood. The fire, reported at 9:46 a.m., was in a small room adjacent to the Oval Office.
That meant fire hoses had to be run through the president's office, a delicate task firefighters apparently accomplished without causing any harm. Several bookcases in a hallway were moved, and "salvage covers" were placed on the Oval Office floor. Given the place, the work was especially rewarding.
"Some of the guys had, probably, the one and only opportunity to visit the Oval Office," Gallagher said.
The fire never amounted to more than just smoke, but that was enough to set off the alarms. Firefighters removed the window frame, just to be sure, and damage was minor, Gallagher said. White House tours were not interrupted.
Yesterday's incident showed just how complex the firefighting plan for the White House is, even when the president is away. Gallagher said the Secret Service is trained to battle fires and has the equipment needed to enter rooms, presumably those not accessible even to District firefighters. Throughout the operation, everyone was watched.
"Believe me," Gallagher said, "when we were in there, there was an agent or a Secret Service person within five feet of everyone."